If you've ever been an AOL user, you probably understand the concept of a "buddy list." It's a list of the friends and associates you want to keep track of online. The program alerts you when someone on your list logs on, and if you choose, you can start a real-time dialogue. AOL was one of the first online services to implement buddy lists, and the feature has created many loyal AOL users.
Now the Internet offers the same ability; in some cases, it's designed to work with the original AOL buddy-list system. Although there are many options out there for Net users who want to stay in touch, there are a few stand-outs that deserve mention.
ICQ ("I seek you") from Mirabilis has gained an avid following of more than 11 million users, and it offers much more than just instant messages. With ICQ, you can do both one-on-one and multiparty chats, share documents, use a whiteboard, transfer files and more.
Ding! from Activerse (http://www.activerse.com) is another hot buddy-list program, as is Peoplelink (http://www.peoplelink.com). And AOL has gotten further into the game with its Internet-based AOL Instant Messenger (http://www.aol.com/aim). This product lets you send instant messages to surfers both on the Net and within AOL.
These free programs are all relatively easy to run and simple to download from the Net. You should keep in mind, however, that the people you communicate with must be using the same program. That means you may want to choose a popular one, such as AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. If you need to communicate with both Mac and Windows users, Ding! is not the answer. There are also privacy issues to consider. For example, Ding! lets you remove your name from other people's buddy lists, and PeopleLink requires you to know someone's e-mail address before it allows you to add them to your list.
The Net is quickly making our world smaller--and communicating in the 21st century is going to be a whole lot different than it was in the 20th century. I can't help but marvel at the ways in which my now-3-year-old daughter will talk to her friends in the future. Do yourself and your company a favor: Don't get left behind.
Cassandra Cavanah is a Los Angeles freelance writer who has reported on the computer industry for nine years.