Are Yahoo, AOL, and MSN messaging clients taking too many liberties?

Summary:It wasn't until last week that a recent story about how Yahoo Instant Messenger (YIM) users were getting more than they bargained for started to ring true for me.

It wasn't until last week that a recent story about how Yahoo Instant Messenger (YIM) users were getting more than they bargained for started to ring true for me.  But, by the time it did, I was worked up in a huff.  Not just about YIM.  But about AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM) and Microsoft's MSN Messenger as well.  As's Stefanie Olsen pointed out, there's a battle for our desktops taking place and the lengths to which companies like Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and Google will go to win keep getting extended.  Wrote Olsen:

Yahoo isn't the only company employing aggressive means to promote their applications and services, nor is it the first. Big companies including MSN and America Online and smaller firms like RealNetworks and Claria have long taken the opportunity to push other tools or features when users install their software.

Push, indeed.  In raising the bar, Yahoo pushed a "highly recommended" update out to its instant messaging users that, in my case, desperately wanted to install additional Yahoo-provided software including a toolbar that Yahoo  wants to enhance my browsing experience with.   I took the update, but had to drill down into some dialogs to decline the remaining bloat and even checked a box that said something like "Don't ask me again."  Although I can't explain how or why (it might have had something to do with running multiple browsers) , I was asked again and now, somehow, I not only have the updated YIM client, but the toolbar as well.  It turned up in Firefox and for now, since I don't know how to remove it, I've just unchecked it in Firefox's view menu.  But my troubles didn't end there.

In what is probably Yahoo's most sophisticated IM client to date (including new voice features), is undoubtedly some additional complexity.  One sign that this isn't the old basic barebones YIM client from days of old is that it (or part of it -- the part called YPager.exe) keeps crashing on me.   At first, it did this at random times and I was able to escape crashdom with minimal harm.  But more recently, it's crashing around the same time that a whole bunch of other software and/or drivers are trying to load or activate themselves (for example, when I cold boot the system or bring it out of standby).  Bootups in particular have been troublesome because, at least in my case, when something crashes during bootup, my system as a whole begins to misbehave and sometimes can't successfully finish booting.  Again, I can't explain why, but sometimes, the only way my ThinkPad can recover from a botched boot like that is to unplug it from the wall and remove and reseat the battery.  

Last night however, the situation further deteriorated when, for a while, my system just couldn't make it all the way through it's boot process.  In each of the fail attempts, I watched as all three instant messaging clients -- YIM, AIM, and MSN -- did something I didn't want them to do.  YIM was crashing.  AIM and MSN, both of which I recently updated -- apparently undid the preferences I set for them last time and were now forcing the activation of AIM Today (see screenshot, left) and MSN Today (above right). The reason I disabled the sort of autoloading of Web pages and other dialogues in the first place was because of how it was interfering with the bootup of my system.

For starters, it's absurd that it's 2005 and the three instant messaging systems are still incompatible with one another.  Imagine if they were? Then, at the very least, we might have only one piece of software trying to shove additional revenue generating bloat down our throats.  Instead, now I have a very boot-process unfriendly three. 

OK, so that' not changing anytime soon.  I understand that in their instant messaging services, AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft are providing a certain amount of free utility.  But milking their loyalists in this way -- above and beyond the accoutrements that already weigh down these once utilitarian pieces of software -- will come back to haunt them.  Many for example, will do what I did today. Whereas before, all of the IM clients automatically loaded when Windows booted, now none of them do and I've been spending more of my IM-time on Skype. Of course, now that Skype has been acquired by eBay, it's probably only a matter of time before the relatively spartan Skype user experience gets polluted and piggybacked  like the rest.  As I wrote in my treatise (over in ZDNet's Vistulations blog) about what Vista must do to give users and administrators a better handle on the Windows start-up situation, "...if I have to trade-in faster boot up times, a cleaner (my preference is spartan) user experience, and ultimately the stability of my system for the utility they and other software vendors have to offer, then no thanks."  In other words, they'll get turned off too.  I'm sure I'm not alone in this feeling.

Topics: Social Enterprise


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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