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The focus of this category is on instant messaging and chat clients, which, although they are not the same thing, are commonly identified with one another.

A chat client is a software application designed to power an online chat room, while instant messaging is usually between only two individuals, although group messaging is not unheard of. Because of the similarities between the technologies, chat, and instant messaging are often used interchangeably. Nevertheless, they are still not one and the same.

Chat technology began in the 1970s, giving people the ability to chat with groups of people at the same time. The first chat rooms were restricted to five people at a time. As the use of the Internet was costly, and rates were based on the amount of time that a person spent online, chats were infrequent.

Early ISPs included Compuserve, Mindspring, UUNet, AOL, Prodigy, Delphi, and Earthlink. Of these, AOL did the most to make use of the Internet more affordable and available to more people, and AOL chat rooms hosted millions of users, greatly popularizing the technology.

Chat takes place in a virtual room, serving as a real-time forum where multiple people can connect with one another at the same time, conversing and sharing images. Some chat rooms are private, while others are open to anyone who wants to participate.

Although they still exist, public chat rooms are not as popular as they were in the 1990s.

Today, chat is more often used by businesses that incorporate live chat on their websites. Business chat sessions replicate the call-center experience, serving as a way of engaging visitors to the site, as well as an alternative means of technical support, in lieu of email or telephone calls.

Chat differs from instant messaging in several ways, one of which is that the conversation is session-based. When the chat session is over, the user closes the application, or the connection is lost, it's all over.

Instant messaging began in the early 1960s, using a technology developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using MIT's messaging, up to thirty users could log on and send messages to one another. However, instant messaging didn't become hugely popular until Marabilis introduced its free instant messaging service, known as ICQ, in 1996. Today, there are several instant messaging services, including ICQ, which no longer dominates the market.

Although there are many areas of overlap today, generally chat is domain-based, while instant messaging involves downloading and installing an IM application. Chat is for group messaging, while IM is for one-on-one conversation. In a chat room, messages are visible to everyone with access to the virtual room, while IM messages allow opening multiple messaging windows for individual private messages. Participants in a chat session are often anonymous, while IM users are known to one another.

Freestanding virtual chat rooms are not so common anymore, but chat clients can be embedded in websites for live chat support or other purposes.

Instant messaging clients are more often downloaded as mobile or smartphone apps today, diverging from the early generation of instant messaging platforms, like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger. In the United States, short message service (SMS) is popular because it is included with most telephone, Internet, and mobile device systems.

The focus of this guide is on the software used to power chat and instant messaging services, which are generally known as clients.



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