An instant messenger (IM for short) is software that allows two or more participants to communicate via text messages. The messages are delivered with an existing internet connection with a delay of just a few seconds.
In order to be able to use an instant messenger, users must first install client software on their local computer and register for the service. This distinguishes instant messenger from conventional chat, where users login via a web interface. Users can find other users and add them to their contact list via the user name or the stored e-mail address. Clicking on the name opens a communication window. Text messages can be entered into this. The messages are delivered immediately via a push service if the other user is online.
Unlike a web-based chat, communication in an instant messenger is not public. Only participants who have been explicitly invited to the conversation can read along.
Features of instant messengers
Every instant messenger offers the basic function of sending text messages. In addition, modern clients often provide additional functionality, such as:
- Transfer of files (e.g. photos, audio streams, videos)
- video chats and conferences
- Sending electronic greeting cards
- Sending SMS
- online games
- contact management
Many of these functions can be used free of charge. Depending on the provider, it can also be paid services. There are numerous videos on Skype’s YouTube channel that show what instant messaging services can do today.
Connection to social networks
Instant messengers can be transformed into control centres for various social networks. For example, the ICQ messenger, the social media channels Facebook, Odnoklassniki, VKontakte, Google Talk, Mail.Ru Agent and other services can be connected. In this case, users can also talk to their Facebook friends via Instant Messenger and receive their status updates.
Known instant messengers
Instant messengers can often be used both for the computer and for smartphones or tablets. A selection of well-known instant messaging services:
Whatsapp is an instant messenger that can be installed on a smartphone across platforms. With the Whatsapp application, users can exchange images, texts, videos and sound files over the Internet. This app is often used as an alternative to SMS and is now considered to replace it. In 2014 Whatsapp was bought by Facebook.
WhatsApp Inc. was founded in California in 2009 by two entrepreneurs. Shortly after it was launched, millions of users used the app to send messages over the Internet for free. The company and application name is a pun on the question “What’s up?” and the abbreviation for application.
In the first quarter of 2014, Whatsapp already had almost half a billion users who used the messenger service at least once a month. This makes Whatsapp one of the fastest-growing companies in the world. The innovative technology, the huge user base and the fear of too much competition may have led to WhatsApp being bought by Facebook in February 2014. Mark Zuckerberg’s company paid $19 billion for WhatsApp Inc. In the same month, Whatsapp also started cooperation with the mobile phone provider E-Plus.
The acquisition of Whatsapp by Facebook has raised doubts about privacy among many users of the free app. Many of the users switched to the instant messenger Threema, which was classified as “uncritical” by Stiftung Warentest in 2014. To date, there has always been a discussion about what happens when Facebook merges its data with the data from Whatsapp.
Today it is sometimes assumed that services such as Whatsapp could replace conventional SMS (Small Message Service) in the long term. Even now (as of 2014) more than 17 billion messages are sent daily via Whatsapp. To date, there has been a very simple pricing model that should come into effect after one year of use. After the takeover by Facebook, it remains questionable how long Whatsapp will be able to finance itself without advertising.
Whatsapp works like a classic instant messenger and is based on the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, XMPP for short. The app can be downloaded for all common mobile user interfaces. There is no official desktop version of its own.
The following message types can be sent with the help of the app:
- Text: theoretically there is no limit here
- Photo files: this data can be sent from a smartphone or tablet via the app interface
- Transmission of your own location: Users can send their GPS location to friends via the app
- Audio files: Sounds can be exchanged with each other using Whatsapp
- Contact data: Users can send their personal data to other users
A special feature of Whatsapp is the option of having your own address book read out on your smartphone. In this way, friends can be directly invited to use Whatsapp together.
WhatsApp has not only been criticized for its data protection regulations since it was taken over by Facebook. Because the service has repeatedly shown itself to be insecure when it comes to data transmission. In addition, data protectionists criticize that the app is allowed to access the phone book of its users and thus stores data without the consent of those who do not use the messaging service. One reaction to the ongoing criticism may be that Whatsapp now wants to work with mobile phone providers and is currently doing this with Base as well.
Use for marketing
At first glance, Whatsapp offers hardly any opportunities for advertisers compared to Instagram or other applications on the social web, especially since the service is currently free of advertising. Nevertheless, there are now and then examples of advertising campaigns that also use the enormous reach of Whatsapp.
Threema is a messaging service for smartphones that is used to send encrypted text messages, photos and videos.
Threema at a glance
Threema was developed by the Swiss Manuel Kasper and published in 2012. For this, he founded Kasper Systems GmbH. Threema is currently available for Apple devices with the iOS operating system from version 1.8.1 and Android devices from version 1.42. The app can be downloaded from the Apple App Store and Google Play. It is chargeable. The price is 1.79 euros for iOS and 1.60 euros for Android devices. There are currently no plans to offer the service for other operating systems such as Blackberry or Windows Phone.
Development of user numbers
After it became known that the instant messaging service WhatsApp had been sold to Facebook, many users switched to Threema because of security and data protection concerns. Within a day, the user base doubled to 400,000 people. By April 2014, it had increased sevenfold and then totaled 2.8 million people. 
Message encryption is one of the key features that set Threema apart from direct competition like WhatsApp. The service is based on the open NaCL library, which is an expert-recognized security standard for communication and encryption. The asymmetric 256-bit encryption corresponds to a 3072-bit RSA encryption. It is a so-called end-to-end encryption, in which the encryption is carried out using a private key that never leaves the personal device. In addition, there is a public key that the recipient needs to decrypt the message.
According to Threema, it is not able to decrypt users’ messages because it does not know the users’ private keys. In addition, the messages are only stored in the main memory on the company’s own Swiss servers until the recipient has read them. After that, they are removed from the stores. If no spyware is active on the user’s smartphone, the operator of Threema assumes that it is impossible for unauthorized third parties to read or manipulate the messages.
Security through data protection
Users have the option of comparing phone numbers and email addresses of contacts from their own address book with the Threema database. In contrast to other solutions on the market, however, the address book is not uploaded to the server, only checksum values, which in turn are sent via an encrypted SSL connection. In this way, it is not possible to spy out the contact details. In addition, the data is not stored on the server but is deleted again immediately after the test. With regard to data protection, Threema was classified as “uncritical” in a short test by Stiftung Warentest on instant messaging services in February 2014.
Snapchat is an instant messenger for smartphones and tablets. The speciality that Snapchat is known for is the sending of photos, which are destroyed after counting down a predetermined number of seconds.
Development of Snapchat
Snapchat was released in 2011. The service was founded in Los Angeles, USA, by Robert Murphy and Evan Spiegel. At the end of 2013, the company was valued at $4 billion. In October 2013 it was announced that Facebook wanted to take over the service for a price of 3 billion US dollars. However, Snapchat turned down the offer. Facebook has since been working on developing a competing app called Slingshot, which media reports say could infringe Snapchat’s patent rights. It was released in June 2014.
When Snapchat was released, the app could only be used to send photos and videos. Since May 2014 there has also been the option of using Snapchat as an instant messaging service and conversing via video chat. A YouTube video from Snapchat shows how the chat works. The special function of Snapchat is the sending of photos that are automatically deleted after a short period of time. Therefore, the platform is often used for so-called sexting, i.e. for sending erotic photos.
Snapchat is available for smartphones and tablets running Android or iOS. Both the installation and the use of the app are free of charge.
Snapchat has repeatedly come under criticism in the past when it became known that the photos are not actually deleted over time, but can no longer be accessed via the app. However, the photo files are stored in the memory of the smartphone or tablet. Here they can be searched for and read out. There is also the option of taking screenshots of the images within the app and exporting them in this way.
Snapchat also attracted negative attention in early January 2014 with the report that hackers had gained access to Snapchat’s databases. The data of 4.6 million registered users was retrieved and published on the internet. On January 9, 2014, the operator released an update for the software that was intended to patch the security hole.
Importance of online marketing
The Snapchat company has around 26 million users in the USA and, according to estimates, there are already several million in Germany. The vast majority is between 13 and 25 years old, with almost three-quarters of the users being female. Snapchat can be used by businesses as an extension of their social media portfolio. To do this, however, users must first be won over as friends for their own channel. This is usually done through advertising via other social media channels, for example by promising the target group great special offers, vouchers or exclusive advance notices. If the company has generated a certain readership on Snapchat, the platform can be used for advertising campaigns.
More instant messengers
In addition to these three instant messengers with a large number of users, there are also other services with far fewer users, for example, the following:
- ICQ: free service for PCs and smartphones from the Mail.ru group, available since 1996
- Skype: available for PCs since 2003, now also available for mobile devices, free use, also suitable for companies; Integration of MSN Instant Messenger since 2013
- Yahoo! Messenger: available for Windows, Linux, Solaris Android and iOS devices, offers text messaging, voice calls, webcam, games and photo sharing, compatible with Windows Live Messenger
- AOL Instant Messenger (AIM): proprietary instant messenger originally only available to AOL customers
- Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger): Messenger service from Microsoft, which has been offered since 1999; no longer available since integration with Skype in 2013
- Jabber: the first client for the XMPP protocol, contact with users of other instant messengers is also possible via Jabber
- Google Talk: existed since August 2005 and was an instant messaging system from Google; was retired in May 2013 and replaced by Google+ Hangouts
In addition, there are so-called multi-protocol clients that can combine several profiles from other messengers in one piece of software. Examples include Miranda IM, Trillian, and Pidgin.
Importance of instant messengers
Instant messengers are now being integrated into numerous other services, including social networks such as Facebook. e.g. Facebook. For this reason, pure instant messengers for the computer are being pushed more and more into the background. The surveys as part of the annual JIM study by the Media Education Research Association Southwest clearly show the drastic development. In 2008, more than 70% of the young people surveyed stated that they used instant messaging services daily or several times a week. In 2013, there is a similar emphasis on online communities such as Facebook. Instant messengers, on the other hand, have dropped to a share of 13 percent.
However, the counterparts for mobile devices are gaining in importance. The well-known WhatsApp service alone was able to more than double its user numbers from 200 million in April 2013 to 430 million in January 2014 within nine months.