MSN Messenger is a web communications / messaging program, similar to other ones currently in the industry. It is in direct competition with ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger.

Early versions of the software, released at about the same time as Windows 2000 (the summer of 1999), were not very well designed, and had a rather clunky interface for what they tried to accomplish. AOL had a more full-featured client, and a more ingrained user-base, making it, at least in the beginning, the far superior client.

A bit of publicity for MSN Instant Messenger came when they reverse engineered AOL's messenging protocol and allowed MSN users to bridge networks with one client and message their friends. This lead to a two week cat and mouse game where Microsoft and AOL reversed engineered each other's safegaurds, until AOL eventually found a way to block out MSN's clients completely. This brought Microsoft's first foray into instant messanging, for better or for worse, out into the light. The interface for the split messaging was especially poor, and was a traditional v1 Microsoft app. (It is joked that it takes Microsoft three tries to get something right). The MSN Messenger project was a deep dark black secret, and was kept secretive from even spouses of those who worked on the project.

MSN Messenger, now on version 3.6 (mid 2001), is a fully featured communication client built into MSN Explorer and available as a stand-alone component. It features parity with many of AOL Instant Messenger’s features including:

MSN IM is a slicker interface to it's web-based features, part of Microsoft's strategy for a simple communications control panel. In just the messenger, you can check your hotmail email (although in AOL you can check any POP3 account), stock quotes, and see the MSN.com headlines. The items such as the stock ticker are more out of the way on a web interface, and less in your face than the AOL news ticker and the like. MSN is also banner-free, while AOL has banners that, even to their own admission, do not serve much purpose other than self promotion. (Mentioned during the aftermath of Justin Frankel AIM hacking incident).

MSN Messenger is part of the MSN family, making it currently the fastest growing online service. It uses Microsoft's ubiquitous Passport login via a hotmail or msn.com email address to authenticate. The major difference between MSN and AOL is that Microsoft can take the hit of offering free services, while offering free services would defeat AOL's primary base as a specialized ISP. Fair or not, that's the logistics of it all. If Microsoft plans on charging for services in the future, there is going to have to be a significant jump over what they currently offer, even thought the current feature set is quite impressive.

MSN Messenger’s interface principles is one of non-interference. The message windows pop up on the right side of the screen in a non-intrusive box, if you are not currently active inside the MSN window. These windows disappear if they have not been activated in a while. MSN Messenger has the advantage of Microsoft's work with other "always on" applications, and how to make them best available to the user (see also Microsoft Office, one of the largest study in application usability). The interface for AIM is smaller overall, but the MSN interface looks a little more polished and easier to use. They both use their screen space equally as well.

AOL Instant Messenger has a large advantage over MSN in its platform portability. AOL has clones of its published protocol on many platforms, including Linux, Macintosh, and Windows. Microsoft has a keen eye on the desktop market, and where the percentages lie, and thus has only written a client for Windows, and the Macintosh. The Macintosh client is not written by the same expert team that does Macintosh Office, so it has many flaws that Macintosh projects (oftentimes seemingly back-burner projects) have, and not the attention to detail the Microsoft native platform has.

MSN Messenger in the end is still the new kid on the block in the Instant Messenger wars. AOL has the ground and the people on their side, but MSN has the marketing momentum and the price. Which one will win out over the other? There is a lot of watching and hatching that currently has to be done, and neither will simply fold up and die. Each side has their trump cards (Microsoft will package MSN IM in Windows XP and can integrate MSN into Office.NET, AOL owns all of Instant Messenger and ICQ), and we shall see how it shall play out.

Personally, I choose to use both.

Update (3-19-02): MSN Messenger is also known as Windows Messenger, and there are now small advertisements in it. It uses the same interface as MSN Explorer. Thanks to stewacide for the update.
Late this August (2003), Microsoft announced that as part of their "Trustworthy Computing" initiative (formerly known as Palladium) they shall be introducing measures to stop unpatched (therefore "insecure") MSN clients from connecting to the network.

All well and good, but the problem here is obvious: Microsoft will not release patches for Kopete, Gaim, Trillian and co. These clients will not be patched, ergo they will not be allowed to connect. (Update: I have been reliably informed that Miranda IM has released a plugin for the new protocol, meaning Miranda users can continue chatting. Fingers crossed for Kopete.)

I, along with many others, am a tad pissed off that Microsoft has done this. Yes, it is their network, yes, they can do what they want, but I don't see AOL getting annoyed at the plethora of free clients available for Windows and other OS's. In fact, they seem rather pleased - they're getting business, right? A lot of MSN users have friends on the network who will not use anything else, and so Linux users and Trillian/Odigo users are going to be left out in the cold.

All MSN users received an email to the address that forms their Passport/Messenger username. It was a shock, and the news was quickly (and eagerly, considering that to many Slashbots this was yet another example of M$ hindering their beloved Linux) broken onto Slashdot and InfoWorld. Many users reported getting a dozen copies of Microsoft's email, headered "ATTENTION: IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED FOR MSN AND WINDOWS MESSENGER USERS", so it was obvious that there would be cries of hoax. But this was not to be. An MSN spokesman said "We sent out this e-mail because it is important that people understand that there is a new security standard in the newer Messenger clients - if you get the e-mail, that means that you have to upgrade."

Cheers MSN. I'll miss my online friends. And you've lost some of yours.
UPDATE: 29/08/2003

MSN are now sending messages to users as soon as they connect with a link to the Windows patch. That's reeeeally helpful on Linux.

Here's a verbatim copy of the email MSN sent out, received today:

ATTENTION: IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED FOR MSN AND WINDOWS MESSENGER USERS.

You are receiving this e-mail because you are a MSN Messenger or Windows Messenger Service user.

As part of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, Microsoft is updating the .NET Messenger Service and providing you with an important MSN Messenger or Windows Messenger security update.

If you are using MSN Messenger 5.0, Windows Messenger 4.7.2000, or MSN Messenger for Mac 3.5, or any versions higher than these, you do NOT need this security update. To find out which version you have, select the 'Help' menu in Messenger, then select 'About'. If you are using an older version, or are not sure, please visit:
http://messenger.msn.com/Help/Upgrades.aspx
for an update.

NOTICE: If you are not using an updated version, you will be unable to continue using your MSN Messenger or Windows Messenger Service.

Thank you for helping Microsoft further its commitment to helping you protect your privacy and security online.

You can view the .NET Messenger Statement of Privacy at:
http://messenger.msn.com/Help/Privacy.aspx
and the .NET Messenger Service Terms of Use and Notices at:
http://messenger.msn.com/Help/Terms.aspx.

UPDATE! The Kopete team have released version 0.7.2, which allows access to the new protocol. This is a Good Thing...http://kopete.kde.org. If you're on KDE and you don't use Kopete, why not? It's already the official messenger... http://www.infoworld.com/article/03/08/19/HNmsnlockdown_1.html

MSN will win this fight, because of a relatively new program called MSN Plus, which can be found at the URL http://www.msgplus.net/

This useful program adds a new menu to the MSN window itself, as well as all chat windows. It allows chat logging (although I believe this is an option in MSN version 6 now), it allows custom away messages with auto messages, there are a series of sound effects that are activated with /s(command), and for IRC users commands such as /whois, /me, and /away can be used.

Another IRC compatible feature is the format tags used to give different sections of a message different colours etc. I found that if one copy and pastes a coloured message from IRC it will show up the same colours in MSN Plus.

I suppose what I'm getting at is this; MSN will win the IM battle, because people love to annoy Microsoft by making programs such as MSN Plus, and programs made by this type of people are usually better than any made by a programmer.

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