February 1, 1999 by Andy Walker
Instant communication has come to the computer desktop through a miraculous little software company called Mirabilis. The Tel Aviv based company has revolutionized communication across the Internet with its innovative little program called ICQ which translates to the not-quite-acronym “I Seek You”.
ICQ is a program that, once installed on an Internet-connected computer, acts as a communications device that in the electronic world is the equivalent of a mailbox, a pager, a courier and a text-based telephone all rolled into one. Basically, from a business perspective, tools such as ICQ could revamp the way businesses operate on an “out on the road” basis. So how does it work?
In ICQ, a user, let’s call him John for this example, can indicate whether or not he is open for communication. John can set his ICQ to broadcast the fact that he is at his computer and ready to receive messages or whether he is busy and unavailable. Another ICQ user, we’ll call her Jane, can find John using the ICQ on-line directory to see if he’s available. Jane simply searches for his ICQ number and adds it to ICQ on her desktop. The ICQ program then monitors its directory server for a change in John’s availability status.
As soon as John indicates via the ICQ program that he is available, it will notify Jane of the fact. Should she wish to communicate with him, Jane can jot a quick note and transmit it out real time and it will pop up as a message on his desktop. Jane can also request a live chat with him. If he agrees, she can engage him and type messages to him in real time. ICQ transmits her keystrokes to him as she types them. If Jane just wants to send John a message, she can type a quick note to him and send it immediately or set it for transmission at a later time. She can also send him data and picture files.
If John is part if a larger group, say a group of brokers across the country, and Jane is the broker relations manager for an insurer, she can also broadcast a message to all of her brokers at once. She can even engage them all in a simultaneous live conversation. One of the more appealing features of ICQ is the program’s ability to randomly find someone to talk to, anywhere in the world.
A random test to see who was available for chatting during the writing of this column revealed Jaime, an 18-year-old chatter from Scotland, “Andra” from The Netherlands, and someone called Kris who’s personal message reads: “Bring it on, baby! Conquering my shyness and feeling good! If you wanna talk just send me a message. Although I do have to sleep sometimes, I am online a lot. Just give it try!”
While the program has some low-brow appeal, it is a remarkable business tool. “It certainly would be a big help to branch offices either on the brokerage or company side,” said avid ICQ user Keith Frew, who works as an insurance communications consultant in Vancouver. “I also think adjusters would find it useful to chat with insurers. Laptop computers would allow things to be done very rapidly while on the road.”
The ICQ program is free while it is being beta tested. That is to say when a final version of the program is created, there will be a charge to use the software. In all likelihood, Mirabilis will continue to offer a version that is free, but will add a feature-rich, for-fee product. The program is currently available both as Windows-based and for Apple computers.
ICQ versions for handheld computing units are also in development. Release versions of ICQ for the Palm III from 3Com and for Windows CE devices will be available early this year. The program does come with a downside for anyone who is concerned about data security. Mirabilis, which was acquired by U.S. on-line service America On-Line last June, recommends that the program currently not be used for mission critical applications or to convey content-sensitive material.
The company also says the program should not be used if, “the risk of exposure to objectionable material is unacceptable to you or if you don’t want to expose your ICQ status or IP address (a computer’s electronic network address) to other people.” The program does offer some privacy functions that force people to obtain consent for a user when they want to add them to their address list. ICQ can be downloaded from the Web at http://www.mirabilis.com/download.
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