For many, IM has become an indispensable tool for collaboration in the office and an informal way to make plans. Unfortunately, IM has no agreed standards. If your kids use MSN and your boss uses Yahoo, you'll have to create multiple accounts and run multiple clients on your PC. A couple of new IM web clients can help you sidestep those issues.
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Meebo The best of the new web-based IM services, Meebo allows you to sign into AIM, ICQ, MSN, Jabber, Google's GTalk and Yahoo Messenger simultaneously. While the site is open to anyone, registered users can store all their logins and passwords and be logged in to all the services automatically.
Meebo has a graceful design that lets you run multiple chats inside a single browser window, or you can open the contact list and chat in small pop-up windows.
In single-window mode, a contacts list clings to the righthand side of the browser. Chat windows can be rearranged or minimised inside the browser. Meebo supports basic font formatting, chat logging and emoticons, although we found the lack of a clickable send button rather odd.
Security is a concern; you may not want to share your passwords with a third party, and Meebo lacks support for encrypted chats. But as long as you aren't discussing your company's top-secret strategy, it's a great alternative to running multiple desktop instant-messaging clients.
KoolIM KoolIM opens new browser windows for your contacts list and for each chat session. When someone messages you, a chat window pops up.
However, KoolIM's beta version still lacks some basic features, such as chat logging, time stamps telling you when a message arrived, and buddy icons; the service also has the same security issues as Meebo.
Web-based services from the four main networks let you chat without their desktop clients, but only to users of the same service.
We like Meebo for its graceful elegance
The internet has sites where you can ask nearly any reasonable question, such as 'What's the best way to schedule backups for Windows XP?' (or whether to break it off with a flaky boyfriend). You can then get multiple useful answers from strangers within hours – if not minutes.
Free advice is supposed to be worth what you pay for it, but some of these may have you rethinking that old adage.
Yahoo Answers The best developed answer site is Yahoo Answers. Anyone with a Yahoo ID can post or answer questions. These are funnelled into categories ranging from amusement parks to taxes in India.
A rudimentary points system deducts points for asking questions and rewards you for answering questions.
Answers come astonishingly quickly and are surprisingly good. A question about whether to overclock a new Intel processor garnered three answers in five minutes.
Windows Live QnA Beta Microsoft's tag-based answers site is called Windows Live QnA Beta.
Although answers were somewhat tough to find, we found that QnA users responded nearly as quickly as the Yahoo Answers users had done.
Not surprisingly, queries about Microsoft products brought out the best in QnA members. One about how to schedule backups and disk defragmenting for Windows XP got four answers, including suggestions of how to use Windows XP's built-in tools, run a defrag multiple times via a batch file, and a suggestion for an automated web-backup service.
But even the non-technology focused questions we asked concerning magazine recommendations and lime-tree fertilisation returned relevant and timely answers.
This is a metablog site with some very clever people answering quirky questions, but it will cost you $5 (around £2.50) to join Ask Metafilter.
Yedda Yedda is an Israeli startup that lets you sign up for keywords and be emailed when a question matching your expertise hits the system. As with all these services, you can both ask and answer questions.