Parental Unit to Filial Unit: ICQ software's great

Your computer

March 15, 1998|By Michael Himowitz

NOW AND THEN, when I'm working late at night, a little box pops up on my computer screen. The message varies, but it's usually something like this:

"Greetings, Parental Unit!"

If you remember the Coneheads (of "Saturday Night Live" and movie fame), you'll recognize this form of address. The message comes from my son (or Filial Unit), who's sitting in his college dorm room a couple of states away.

Sometimes Parental and Filial Units just exchange a few words; other times we open a chat window for a real "conversation." Either way, it makes me feel good to know that Ike is only a couple of mouse clicks away.

I'm not alone. Millions of Internet users are finding that their kids, parents, siblings, friends and co-workers are a lot closer than they once thought, thanks to a new generation of messaging software that provides instant gratification -- without the delay of traditional e-mail.

My son and I use a program called ICQ, which is free for the downloading from the home page of its creator, an Israeli start-up called Mirabilis. In less than two years, ICQ has become one of the hottest programs on the Web.

In fact, Mirabilis claims that almost 50,000 people a day download the software, and that 2 million people a day actually use it.

The name ICQ, by the way is a double play on words. Say the letters and you hear "I seek you," which is exactly what the program is about. Among old-time ham radio operators, CQ is also two-letter Morse code combination that tells the world you're looking for someone to chat with.

How does ICQ work?

Like others of its genre, ICQ requires that you and your correspondent have compatible software.

You also have to register with a chat server -- a computer somewhere on the Internet that handles the message transfers. When I installed ICQ on my computer, it walked me through registration on Mirabilis' server in New York. My son registered, too, as did 20 of his high school friends who use ICQ to keep in touch now that they're scattered in colleges all over the East Coast.

No charge

Once I was registered (no charge), I created a list of relatives and friends who had also signed up. You can search the ICQ server for friends by name or e-mail address, and if they aren't registered, ICQ will let you send them a copy of the program via e-mail.

Now, whenever I turn on my computer, ICQ logs onto Mirabilis' server and checks to see which of my friends and kin are on-line. Their names appear on a list in blue; the people who aren't logged on appear in red.

When I want to send Ike a quick message, I just click on his name, type a line or two into a pop-up box and click the send button.

If he's online, he sees the message instantly. He can respond with another message, or we can open up a chat window, which lets us type words at each other interactively in real time.

If Ike knows he won't be at his computer for a while, he can leave an "away message," which I see immediately. Normal people post a note that says something like, "Back in an hour." But Ike and his friends are fond of this one:

" 'A' is for academics. 'B' is for beer. One of these reasons is why I'm not here."

This is enough to gladden the heart of any Parental Unit. In any case, my messages to Ike will appear on his message list when he comes back.

ICQ is loaded with other useful features -- so many that it's hard to sort them out. In fact, the most difficult thing about mastering ICQ is its cluttered interface, an inconsistent mishmash of menus, tabbed boxes and checkoff lists.

Nifty file transfer

If you're willing to wade through this stuff, you'll find a nifty file transfer utility, which allows you to send word processing documents, spreadsheets, graphics or almost anything else directly to the person at the other end.

Of course, you can do the same thing by attaching the file to an e-mail message, but mail often takes a while to arrive, and many e-mail systems choke on large attachments. ICQ's file transfer is fast and efficient.

This ease of use is also a potential Achilles heel, because ICQ makes it easy for someone you don't know to send you a virus-laden file.

The program lets you decide whether to accept files automatically, so always practice safe computing -- never accept a file from someone you don't know. And even if you do know the person, use a virus checker.

Aside from occasional problems making contact with the Mirabilis server, ICQ is so reliable and easy to use that it's a part of our everyday lives.

It's available in Windows and Mac flavors -- just point your Web browser to A word of warning, though. The Web page is even more cluttered and confusing than the program itself.

If you're looking for alternatives, one of the slickest comes from America Online. AOL Instant Messenger is designed to give the company's 10 million customers and their non-AOL friends on the Internet a way to communicate -- something ICQ can't do.

While it lacks many of ICQ's features, Instant Messenger makes it a snap to set up "Buddy Lists" of friends and relatives, determine whether they're on line, and send instant messages.

Netscape Communications has recently adopted the AOL product as its messaging program of choice, so it's likely to become a favorite outside of AOL, too. To download a copy, surf over to

To reach the author, send e-mail to

Pub Date: 3/15/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.