On the 8th April, MSN Messenger will die an ignominious death as Microsoft boots everyone over to Skype. But the magic of sending people little snippets of text accompained by oh-so-funny emoticons won't die with it -- there's a whole bevy of services just waiting in the wings.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention GTalk at this juncture, largely because it powers all of the caffeine-powered cyberspace rantings of the Giz UK editors. It's a simple, no-frills cross-platform messenger built on Jabber (XMPP). Yes, you can get at it from a web client in GMail; there's also desktop clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux, not to mention a neat little Android app. Sure, you don't get MSN's smorgasboard of endearing little emoticons, but if you're looking for power, minimalism, and a client where people might already use the damn thing, look no further.
Windows Live Messenger is migrating to Skype, where you'll be able to chat with all your MSN buddies just like it's 2003 again, only the little smiley faces jump around now and you get piss-takingly annoying notification noises. Otherwise, it's the Skype you already know and love -- the focus is on real face-time, but the text messenger is perfectly serviceable as well, with desktop clients for Windows and OS X, and iOS, Android and Windows Phone (duh) apps tagging along as well.
Yeah, believe it or not, people do more than just cyberbullying and trolling drunken photos on Facebook. The built-in messenger app isn't exactly slick, or powerful, but chances are that all your friends use Facebook, so what it lacks in prettiness it makes up for in social nous. And, if your productivity can't stomach having the Facebook tab open 24/7, there's a real desktop client for Windows.
You remember Yahoo, right, that Google rival that's now notable for owning Flickr and...yeah, that's pretty much it. Well, like any self-respecting internet big-gun wannabe these days, it's got an instant messaging program. If you've got a Yahoo ID, the web client lets you chat with the other 14-year-olds in a nice gag-inducing purple environment. There's a iPhone case as well, in the same lurid lavendar to match your Hello Kitty case and MySpace page.
According to its FAQ page, AIM is "A state of being. A path to greatness. In some ways, it’s whatever you make it to be". Now, if that's a bit too much hyperbole for you, AIM actually stands for AOL Instant Messenger, because yes, this is internet dinosaur AOL's take on instant messaging. It's been around since 1997, but in its current form, it's a decent mulitmedia messenger, with a web client, and apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. Still, when we reviewed it previously, the conclusion was "nice, but kind of a graveyard".
Of course, the world isn't perfect, and we don't all use one IM service. So, you can either have a whole bunch of different desktop programs, or, you can have one unifying desktop client that allows you to chat with all your friends, regardless of whether they're a Facebooking mainstreamer or a AIM-wielding geek. There's a whole world of shitty IM clients out there, just waiting to take you in, amalgamate your contacts lists, and then spam them to hell and back. For our money, these are the best for their respective platforms:
Pidgin isn't the most polished client out there, but it's certainly one of the most powerful. It's got all the features you'd expect from a desktop client -- typing notifications, away notifications, myriad kitchen sinks -- and it also supports plug-ins, so you can get add-on capability for things like Twitter and Last.fm. Also, the open-source nature of the product means that unlike other programs (*cough* Digsby *cough*), it doesn't change your status from 'Online' to 'Online -- using Digsby Instant Messeger, THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD AND UNICORN POO'. And yes, the list of protocols it supports is pretty damn comprehensive.
Adium isn't quite as aesthetically pleasing as, say, iChat, but the open-source nature means that if there's a protocol out there that three Icelandic ice-fishermen use to chat, Adium probably supports it. It integrates well into OS X, doesn't use many resources, and just like Pidgin, doesn't feel the need to tell the whole world that you're using it.