What’s the next killer app? If you believe industry pundits, it’s instant messaging. Microsoft must believe this prediction because its latest version of MSN Instant Messenger can be considered the Swiss army knife of real-time communications. The Windows XP MSN Messenger has all the tools you need to conduct virtually any real-time interaction, with the exception of sharing dinner.

You might think instant messengers are just toys for kids, but instant messengers may now have a place in legitimate corporate and business communications because they include real-time voice, video, and data communications tools. The MSN Messenger could be the app you need to bring the instant messenger into the corporate fold.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll focus on how to use the MSN Messenger version 4.6 with Microsoft .NET services. If you’re nervous about using the Microsoft-run MSN .NET service, you can still take advantage of nearly all the features discussed by using the MSN Messenger with Exchange Server 2000. For an excellent review on how to configure the Exchange 2000 Server to support instant messaging, check out Jim Boyce’s “Deploying Exchange 2000 Server instant messaging.”

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll cover the following:

  • Setting up MSN Messenger
  • MSN Messenger data services
  • MSN Messenger voice/video services

Setting up MSN Messenger
The first step is to download the latest version of the MSN Messenger from Microsoft’s Messenger site. After you’ve installed it, you should download the Messenger add-in pack for its integration features.

You must take care of three things before you start doing real-time communications the MSN Messenger way:

  • Obtain a .NET account.
  • Configure the MSN Application Properties.
  • Add contacts to the contact list.

Obtaining a .NET account
You can obtain a .NET or Passport account in one of several ways. The easiest and most common way is to get a Hotmail account through the Hotmail Web site. Your Hotmail username and password become your MSN Messenger username and password.

You aren’t required to use a Hotmail account. You can obtain a .NET Passport associated with any e-mail address. Perform the following steps to get a .NET Password account without using Hotmail:

  1. Open the Windows Messenger and click the Get A .NET Passport link.
  2. The .NET Passport Wizard will open. Click Next to move past the Welcome page.
  3. On the Do You Have An E-mail Address page, select Yes. Click Next.
  4. On the What Is Your E-mail Address page, type in your e-mail address and click Next.
  5. On the Create Your Password page, type in a password that’s at least six characters long. It can contain upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Since there’s a good chance that public services like Hotmail will be hacked, the more complex your password, the better. Note that the check box for Save My .NET Passport Information In My Windows XP User Account allows the MSN Messenger to “remember” you. You may want to uncheck this box for security reasons. Click Next.
  6. On the Choose And Answer A Secret Question page, click the down arrow in the Secret Question list box, select a question, and type an answer in the Answer text box. You should not enter the correct answer to this question because they’re often asked for other purposes, such as for financial transactions. If your account or the MSN Passport were compromised, the intruder would have some very personal information about you, which could have the potential for wreaking havoc on your financial existence. Click Next.
  7. On the Where Do You Live page, make the appropriate selections for Country/Region, State, and ZIP Code. If this is a business account, you may want to put valid information here. Note that if you put in a phony state, you must put in a valid ZIP code for that state. Click Next.
  8. On the Review The .NET Passport Terms Of Use page, read the terms of use and select the I Accept The Agreement option. Click Next.
  9. On the Share Your Information With Participating Sites page, you can choose to share your e-mail address or other registration information with everyone on the Internet. Unless you have a compelling reason to do so, I recommend that you do not share your information.
  10. On the You’re Done page, click Finish.

The MSN Messenger will open and log you in to the service.

Configuring the MSN application
To configure the MSN Messenger’s application properties, click Tools | Options. You’ll see the Options screen, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

On the Personal tab, you can configure your display name, public profile, font, and emoticons for your message text.

Figure B

Click on the Phone tab next (see Figure B) and enter your phone numbers. These entries are useful for people who have you on their contact lists; they can use the computer-to-phone calling feature to call you based on the numbers you enter here. If you want people to be able to send messages to one of your mobile devices (such as a cell phone or PocketPC handheld device), click Mobile Settings. You’ll be taken to a Web page that allows others to send messages to your device.

Click the Preferences tab (see Figure C).

Figure C

Of the many options here, the most important ones are Run This Program When Windows Starts and the File Transfer location option. If you choose to allow the MSN Messenger to run when Windows starts, it can start up and log you in automatically so that you don’t have to think about it. It’s a good idea to create a folder dedicated to your Messenger downloads so that you can scan that folder more easily for viruses.

Figure D

On the Privacy tab (see Figure D), you can configure whether you’ll be asked for your logon information when you go to Passport-enabled sites. If you don’t select this option, you’ll be automatically logged in. You can also view the names of people who have placed you on their contact lists by clicking View.

The Accounts tab reflects the type of account you’re using (.NET Passport or Other Communications Service Account). Since most users will have set up .NET Passport Accounts, the default will be .NET Passport.

Click on the Connection tab and you’ll see the screen shown in Figure E.

Figure E

There’s a good chance you’re behind a proxy or firewall. If that’s the case, you should configure the Messenger with the type of proxy you’re using and the server, port, user ID, and password, if applicable. This will allow you to use the instant messaging feature of the MSN Instant Messenger.

Adding contacts to the contact list
Now that the program is set up the way you like it, it’s time to add some contacts. The contact must have a .NET Passport, and you must know the e-mail address the user has configured with his Passport or know the first and last name the user has configured in his Passport account. Perform the following steps to add a contact:

  1. In the MSN Messenger, click Tools | Add A Contact.
  2. On the How Do You Want To Add A Contact page, select the By E-mail Address Or Sign-in Name option and click Next.
  3. On the Please Type Your Contact’s Complete E-mail Address page, type the e-mail address of your contact and click Next.
  4. On the last page of the wizard, click Finish.
  5. The contact will see what appears in Figure F. The other person has the option to block you from seeing when he’s online and from contacting him.

Figure F
Your contact is notified that you have added him to your contact list.

  1. The contact will appear in your contact list.

MSN Messenger data services
Now that you have some contacts in your contact list, you can start having fun. The MSN Messenger provides a number of data-oriented services, including the following:

  • Transferring files
  • Whiteboard and Application Sharing
  • Asking for Remote Assistance

File transfers
The MSN Messenger makes it easy to transfer files to and from your contacts. This is a lot more convenient than putting up an FTP site, and it also allows you to get around the file-size limits that many user e-mail accounts have. Perform the following steps to send a file to a contact:

  1. Right-click on your contact’s name in the contact list and click Send A File Or Photo.
  2. The Send A File To <username> dialog box will appear. Navigate to the file on your hard disk, select the file, and then click Open.
  3. You’ll see a screen similar to the one in Figure G. Note that the contact will have to approve the file transfer. After the file is transferred, you’ll see a message informing you that the transfer is complete.

Figure G
Sending a file to a contact

  1. When a contact tries to send you a file, you’ll see a screen like the one in Figure H. Click the Accept link or hold down the [Alt]T key combination to allow the file to be transferred. A dialog box will warn you that viruses and other bad things can be transferred to your computer and give you some advice on preventing this from happening. Click OK to close the dialog box.

Figure H
Accepting a file transfer

  1. When the file is transferred, you’ll see a screen like the one shown in Figure I. You can click the link and open the transferred file immediately. If you’re unsure of the contents, you might want to scan the file first. Programs like Norton AntiVirus automatically scan files as they’re opened, so that saves you a step.

Figure I
Opening the transferred file

Whiteboard and Application Sharing
The Whiteboard function that was available in NetMeeting is now included with the MSN Messenger. This feature is definitely underused. When most people start the Whiteboard, they draw some wavy lines, boxes, and triangles and then give it up. This is unfortunate because you can use the Whiteboard to display any information that you can place on the Windows clipboard. It’s a great way to share screen shots, graphics, and blocks of text while carrying on a conversation.

Perform the following steps to start a Whiteboard session:

  1. Right-click on your contact and click the Start Whiteboard command.
  2. The contact will see a message asking whether he wants to accept the request to start the Whiteboard. After he accepts the invitation, you’ll see the Sharing Session dialog box (Figure J).

Figure J

  1. You can then copy and paste text and images to the Whiteboard.
  2. To close the Whiteboard session, click File | Exit. You’ll be given the option to save the contents of the Whiteboard. If you save the Whiteboard contents, you can view them later by double-clicking the file.

Application Sharing is another handy feature that allows you to share selected applications on your computer with one of your contacts. You might think of this as a mini Remote Assistance session, but instead of the contact being able to view and manipulate all the applications on your computer, he can only work with the applications you specify. Perform the following steps to enable Application Sharing:

  1. Right-click the contact and click Start Application Sharing.
  2. Your contact will receive a message asking him to accept an invitation to Application Sharing. After he accepts, you’ll see the Sharing Programs dialog box (Figure K). Select the application from the list and then click the Share button. The button will be grayed out and a checkmark will appear to the left of the application after you have shared it. The Prevent Control button in the figure will first appear as the Allow Control button. After you allow control, the name changes to Prevent Control. After you allow control, you have the option to Automatically Accept Requests For Control. If you don’t select this option, you’ll have to give permission to the contact to control the shared application. The contact double-clicks on the application to ask for control.

Figure K
Sharing applications with a contact

  1. Your contact will see a screen like the one shown in Figure L. The user will have control only of the program that you share; he won’t have access to other applications on the machine. When you’re done sharing the application, click Unshare or Unshare All.

Figure L
The contact now controls the shared application.

Asking for Remote Assistance
The Windows XP Remote Assistance feature acts like a mini Terminal server. When users ask for Remote Assistance, they give you an opportunity to connect to, and potentially control, their computers. This is a great boon to help desk personnel who need to access a user’s computer to figure out what’s going wrong. The Remote Assistance feature is integrated with the MSN Messenger. For example, you or a user will perform the following steps to allow a contact to assume control:

  1. Right-click on the contact and click Ask For Remote Assistance.
  2. The contact will receive a message informing him that he has been invited to take control of your computer. After the contact accepts the invitation, the Remote Assistance windows will open on his desktop and you’ll see a dialog box asking whether you want to let this person view your screen and chat with you. Click Yes to allow your contact to take control.
  3. After the contact connects to your computer, he’ll see your desktop. For the contact to take control of your desktop, he must click the Take Control button in the Remote Assistance window. Then, your contact will see a screen similar to the one shown in Figure M. After you click Yes, the contact will have control over your computer, just as in a typical Terminal Services session. Both of you will be logged on to the computer, and both of you can still control the mouse.

Figure M
The contact takes control of your computer.

  1. When you’re done with the Remote Assistance session, click the Disconnect button in the Remote Assistance console (Figure N).

Figure N

MSN Messenger voice and video services
MSN Messenger is designed to supplant NetMeeting as your voice and video conferencing client. In fact, the NetMeeting developers group has been disbanded, and all application development at Microsoft for voice and video client services is focused on the MSN Messenger, which has all the features of NetMeeting and more. The Messenger’s codecs are higher performance, and the audio capabilities are superior so that you no longer need noise-canceling headphones to get high-quality audio.

The voice and video features in MSN Messenger include the following:

  • Computer-to-phone calling
  • Computer-to-computer calling
  • Video conferencing

Computer-to-phone calling
One of the most useful features of the MSN Messenger is the computer-to-PSTN calling feature. From your computer, you can call any telephone in the world. To make a computer-to-PSTN phone call, you must have an account with one of the IP telephony providers. At one time, you could get these accounts free, but if you want an account that actually works, you’ll have to pay for it. I use Dialpad and have been very pleased with it. The cost of calling a computer anywhere in the United States is $9.95 U.S. per month. The call quality is crystal clear and as good as any phone-to-phone conversation.

When you first try to make a phone call, you’ll be asked for the name of your service provider. You can then take advantage of your contact list to make computer-to-phone calls to your contacts. Perform the following steps to make this happen:

Right-click your contact and click Make A Phone Call.

Click the down arrow in the Select A Phone Number text box (Figure O) and you’ll see the numbers your contact has listed for him or herself. Click on the number you want to call and then click Dial. The MSN Messenger will make the call through your telephony provider.

Figure O
Making a computer-to-phone call to a contact using the MSN Messenger

You can also call a number that is not associated with a contact by typing the number into the Select A Phone Number text box.

Computer-to-computer calling
You can make voice calls and not pay a dime with MSN Messenger’s computer-to-computer voice calls. The quality of these calls is very good and doesn’t require that either side have noise-canceling headphones. You can expect these computer-to-computer calls to become more popular as more small businesses bring in dedicated Internet connections.

To make a computer-to-computer call, right-click on the contact and click Start A Voice Conversation. The contact will be asked if he wants to accept the call. After he or she clicks the Accept link, you both can start talking; it doesn’t get much easier than that.

If both you and your contact have video cameras connected to your computers, you can carry on a videoconference. The quality of the video is dependent on the speed of your connection. To get a reasonably good quality video stream, you should have at least a 128-KB BRI ISDN connection. If you have a DSL, cable, or T-carrier line, your videoconference will be just like being there.

Starting a videoconference is easy. Right-click the contact name and click Start A Video Conversation. A video window will appear in the upper right corner. Audio features are enabled automatically when you initiate a videoconference. You have the option to stop video or audio individually after the conference has started. Note that, as in computer-to-computer audio conversations, you don’t need a telephony service provider to conduct videoconferences.

Special note for clients behind firewalls

If you’re behind a firewall, it’s likely that you won’t be able to use any of the MSN Messenger features except the computer-to-phone telephony and the instant messenger features. The Whiteboard, Application Sharing, computer-to-computer, and videoconferencing features won’t work behind a firewall that isn’t UPnP-aware or isn’t able to act as Session Initiation Protocol (SIS) proxy server. At this time, the only SIS-compliant NAT server is the Windows XP Internet Connection Services (ICS). The Microsoft ISA Server 2000 doesn’t support these features.

The MSN Messenger could be the next killer app. This application provides a variety of voice, video, and data services that allow you real-time collaboration with others on your internal network or on the Internet. Although many of the features of the MSN Messenger do not yet work for clients behind firewalls, you should expect industry support to improve in the coming months so that all the MSN Messenger features will be functional across common firewall applications.