CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, November 16, 1998

ICQ (I Seek You) protects your privacy

It's a dull day when you don't learn something new, and although I don't have much time for daily chit-chat, I'd heard so much lately about ICQ, it required a venture into this new arena to see what all the fuss was about.

 It's not exactly original, but rather a retrofit of the Internet chat standard, IRC (Internet Relay Chat). ICQ (pronounced "I Seek You") is an Internet software program by Mirabilis that let's you know who's online at any time and allows you to communicate with them at will, in real time. Yes, it's another chat room program, but it includes additional nifty features that go well beyond traditional chat rooms.

Chatting while connected to the Internet has been around longer than the World Wide Web, but it soared in popularity when America Online offered "People Connection" as one of its standard channels. This feature enables AOL users to exchange text messages in real time and see a running dialog of each user's message, hence the loose term "chatting."

Members can chat in "rooms," or channels, with people of similar interests, or limit their conversations to specific people. AOL has since built on its People Connection feature and added a "Buddy List" system for users to track their AOL pals online and communicate instantly. So popular is this program, that AOL has expanded its chat program beyond the boundaries of their proprietary online world and now offer the AOL Instant Messenger to Netscape users on the greater Internet.

ICQ most closely approximates the AOL Buddy List and Instant Messenger software, but it exceeds these services that AOL offers and features more customization and expanded options that appeal to many users. First and foremost, it's a free and available to anyone with an Internet connection, not just to subscribers of America Online. There is no membership fee and it functions cross-platform on Windows 3.x, Windows 95/98, Windows NT, and Macintosh operating systems.

ICQ offers increased privacy options that allow you to select and authorize which users add you to their contact lists. With this feature you can truly create your own personal network of contacts without fear of being tracked or hounded online by undesirables. With ICQ, you can also transfer files and exchange messages both online and offline, since each member is assigned a unique Universal Internet Number. In this respect ICQ behaves more like a typical e-mail client.

Once ICQ is installed on your computer, it sits idle, in the system tray until you make your Internet connection. At that time, the ICQ window pops up and displays your contact list indicating who's online and who's offline. If you choose to be "visible," your online presence is announced to the Internet community as well. There are plenty of privacy options, if you prefer anonymity.

Once connected, you can then choose to share files, send messages or request a chat session. Chat is conducted between users simultaneously, in split screen windows, with unique fonts and backgrounds. For those with friends and family scattered far and wide, this is a great way to drop in, or just say "hi" in person, on a regular basis, for the price of a local call. You can seek out people with similar interests for chat sessions or participate in group chats on a variety of topics.

By default, the program loads in "Simple Mode" with only the basic features enabled. Once you master the system, you can switch to "Advanced Mode" for more detailed options. Adding people to your contact list is simple using the "Add/Find Users" command. You can search the Internet for ICQ members by first name, last name, nickname, e-mail account or UIN.

You can learn more about ICQ at the Mirabilis Web site, www.mirabilis.com/ Be forewarned that this is the messiest, most poorly designed Web site I've seen in a long time, but with a little perseverance, you can locate the download commands. After that, the rest is straightforward and easy. The download is quick and the entire folder only occupies 2MB of hard disk space.

ICQ has grown to 14 million users in just two years and is increasing its database by 1 million users each month. The ICQ software consistently ranks at the top of shareware download lists and all by word-of-mouth marketing.

With this in mind, I suppose it comes as no surprise to learn that America Online acquired ICQ this year for $200 million-plus. What AOL plans to do with the Mirabilis company is not yet clear, but what is obvious is this adage: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!

Cathi Schuler is a technical writer and computer literacy specialist. She can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by snail-mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at
http://www.ceeprompt.com . Click here for past columns.