Internet chat for business

By Jon: First published in Online Currents 2002 – 17(4): 4-6


Real-time conversation via the Internet – ‘chat’ – has been overlooked as a means of business communication.  Despite its reputation as a recreational system, chat offers many powerful features of use to everyone in business or government.  Different types of chat systems and chat software are examined here: Web chat, IRC, NetMeeting, ICQ and Yahoo Group chat.  All have their own strengths and weaknesses, but an appropriate system can open new channels of communication for teams of workers.


The meteoric rise in use of the World Wide Web and email has eclipsed some of the older alternative means of communication over the Internet.  This includes Usenet newsgroups and chat, both of which have been relegated to the category of ‘play’ by a majority of business and government users.  But chat in particular provides a cheap and convenient way of communicating with individuals and groups that can be a useful tool for the manager’s kit.

There are many systems and applications for Internet chat, some of which are discussed in detail below.  One important distinction is between text-based chat, where communication is by typed messages which appear on each user’s screen, and ‘enhanced’ chat which may include graphics, voice or video connections between the participants.

Some advantages of using chat over telephone communications and email are:

  • Many people can participate in a meeting without the need for special hardware and phone equipment.
  • Chat can be carried out for the cost of local telephone calls to a provider rather than expensive timed STD or ISD calls.  Chat over a local network is essentially free.
  • Chat can be carried out from any location that has an Internet connection.
  • Chat participants can remain anonymous if they wish to.
  • Text-based chat allows people who are hearing-impaired or in noisy locations to participate fully in discussions without the need for additional technology.
  • Text-based chat is a low-bandwidth activity which can be carried out successfully over poor quality telephone connections.
  • A written record of the discussion is available immediately.

Some disadvantages of chat which apply to particular systems are:

  • The need for additional software beyond the ‘standard’ Internet application suite.
  • There may be occasional difficulties accessing chat servers and hosts.
  • A time needs to be arranged for all participants to be available and online.
  • New participants may feel uncomfortable with the system and need to be reassured and encouraged.
  • It takes time and discipline to develop an effective communications style that makes up for missing verbal and visual cues and accommodates the occasional delays.

Simple Web-based chat

Requirements: A computer with an Internet connection and a browser capable of running Java applets.

In its simplest form Web-based chat consists of a text field into which users type their messages (and press ENTER) and a panel in which all the messages appear in sequence.  Users also need to supply a nickname which will be prefixed to their messages in the display panel.  A good (though neglected) example can be found at the Hermes site (  Hermes is an Internet Service Provider based in the Blue Mountains in NSW and the chat page is provided as a free public service.  No special provision is made for recording the conversation but the text can be cut-and-pasted into a word processing program.  Alternatively, a transcript can be requested from Hermes via email. A business could easily incorporate a similar applet into a Web site for their own users.
Effective chat messages are short and focussed: experienced participants take the time to read what has been said previously and direct their responses to the most appropriate persons.
Other Web-based chat systems (like Yahoo Group chat, below) are often more elaborate and less reliable.  Although they have their supporters, they are not simple or dependable enough for business use.
Figure 1 – The Hermes website chat system

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)

Requirements: A computer with an Internet connection, IRC software and the address of a functioning chat server.

The stereotypical image of chat on the Internet is represented by IRC, the system developed by Jarkko Oikarinen in 1988.  This requires users to connect up to a chat server, which can be located anywhere in the world but is usually geographically close to the user.  Servers in turn may be linked up into global networks like Dalnet, IRCNet and UnderNet.  Once connected to the server or network the user can either join an existing chat channel (or room) or create one of their own from scratch.  The first person in a channel is the moderator and can invite others to join or ban them from the room.  A room can be made private to prevent unwanted intrusions.  A channel list shows the rooms available through that server or network, with the number of participants currently in each room.  Users can participate in several rooms at once, and often do.  A user is identified by a nickname which must be unique on the server.

IRC also allows for files to be transferred between participants and for participants to have private, one-on-one conversations.  IRC communications can be logged and stored as text files.

IRC requires special software.  The most widely used is mIRC, but others are available including some for Macintosh and other platforms.  If the user’s computer does not already have an IRC program, mIRC can be downloaded from the Web and installed in a few minutes.  (mIRC is available from  After a 30-day trial the user is expected to register the program.  Current registration fees are $US20 for the current version.)

A free IRC-based program called Comic Chat is included as part of the Microsoft Internet Explorer package.  This includes several non-standard features, but these can be turned off by the user if required.

To use IRC for team communications there must be a time specified (in GMT terms for international connections) and the name of a server or network that will be available to all participants.  Chat servers may be unavailable at unpredictable times, so a backup time or a backup server – preferably both – should also be agreed upon.  Unique nicknames can be determined through some simple rule (e.g.  ‘First name followed by ‘**XYZCo’).  The first participant to connect with the server can set up a private channel with a specified name for the others to join: alternatively, if the channel name is not specified in advance, a user can invite other participants on the server to join a particular channel.

Conferencing via NetMeeting

Requirements: A computer with an Internet connection, NetMeeting software and an IP address or the address of a functioning NetMeeting server.

NetMeeting is another component of the Microsoft Internet Explorer package and is incorporated into versions of Windows from 98 onwards.  It is similar to IRC in that it connects participants via a global server, but its capabilities extend beyond text-based chat (which can be logged) and file transfer into the field of conferencing.  Additional features of NetMeeting include:

  • Audio or video conferencing via PCs equipped with microphones, speakers and video cameras.  All participants must be equipped with these for audio/video conferencing to work.
  • virtual whiteboard; participants share a Paint-like interface on which they can all ‘draw’ in coloured markers in addition to writing text or pointing to items.  Multiple pages are available to work on and the results can be saved if necessary.
  • Remote display allows the conference leader to show his or her screen to all the other participants.  For instance, the leader could bring up a budget report in Excel and point with the mouse to figures of interest while maintaining an audio dialogue with the other participants.
  • Remote control allows other participants to take control of the leader’s programs (with the leader’s permission).  For instance, each participant could take over the Excel spreadsheet in turn and add their own figures while commenting on them via audio or chat.
All NetMeeting users connected to a particular server are listed in a directory from which the conference leader can select who to invite.  Participants can be identified in the directory by their names and/or their email addresses.  A participant can also maintain a list of colleagues and contact them directly if they are online and running NetMeeting.
Public NetMeeting servers are fairly rare, although a large company could set one up to meet its own requirements.  A reliable server can be found in Belgium at An alternative is to connect directly via an IP number and set up a private conversation between two computers.

ICQ and other messaging systems

Requirements: A computer with an Internet connection, messaging software and a messaging identity

ICQ (‘I – Seek – You’) puts an emphasis on full-time availability and ad hoc communications.  Users normally run ICQ all the time they are online.  This allows other online ICQ members to locate and get in touch with them, either through sending messages or by requesting a chat session.  A message sent to someone who is online and running ICQ will be received immediately; if the person is offline (or not currently running ICQ) the message will be stored until they are.
Using ICQ requires the user to download the ICQ program and to register their details with the global ICQ server.  They will then be given a unique ICQ number.  Other ICQ users can locate them via this number or by searching for a name, nickname or email address.  ICQ users in frequent contact can add each other – with permission – to their buddy lists which appear at the right of the screen, thus being able to see immediately who is online and who is not.  A user may have several buddy lists representing the different teams of which they are a member.  Once a user has set up a buddy list they can send it directly to other users for their use.
Setting up a chat is merely a matter of inviting online users from your buddy list to join you.  Communication can also be through brief messages, which can be sent to a whole group or an individual.  ICQ allows for extensive logging of both messages and chat; in fact a chat can be played back in real time to show the development of the meeting.
ICQ was developed by Mirabilis, which has been taken over by America Online (AOL).  AOL also has its own, less elaborate, messaging system, and the two have been developed in parallel.  More recently both Microsoft and Yahoo have also begun to offer messaging systems of their own, but ICQ remains the leading package.  At present communication across different messaging systems is not possible, so it is important that participants agree on a system in advance and become familiar with its operation.  The ICQ server is occasionally unavailable, so users arranging for a meeting will have to agree on a backup time as well.
ICQ is a free program available from  New versions are released every few months.

Yahoo Group Chat

Requirements: A computer with an Internet connection and a Web browser capable of running Java applets.  The group moderator must have a Yahoo identity and unless the group is made open to the public the users must have Yahoo identities of their own. This is a variant of Web-based chat which requires participants to have access to a Yahoo Group.  Groups are normally based around particular topics or organisations and provide email and file sharing facilities as well as access to chat.  To create a group the moderator must first obtain a free Yahoo identity from  There are several forms to fill in and a Terms of Service agreement to endorse.  The process takes about ten minutes, and setting up a group about the same length of time.  One moderator can set up several groups.

A group’s home page can be found on the Web at e.g.  if the moderator sets up a group called ‘camerausers’ it would be available via  Anyone can view the group home page, but only group members can access the features like file sharing and chat.

To run the chat the user accesses the chat page and must wait for the chat applet to download.  Yahoo chat also supports the use of microphones and speakers for audio chat through an add-in program.  Text-based chat is not logged but it can be cut and pasted into other programs.  Yahoo chat also allows users to have private one-on-one conversations.

Unfortunately Yahoo chat is prone to technical problems and often requires several attempts to make it work.  Users have also found the size of the chat screen to vary, sometimes being so small as to be unusable.  Current Yahoo Groups users who are willing to persevere may find it adds to their capabilities, but it lags behind the others described here.


No chat system is foolproof or perfect, but each system has strengths which meet the needs of its target audience.  By selecting an appropriate system and investing time in setting it up and training staff, business can develop faster, more reliable communication, easier information transfers and – ultimately – better teamwork.