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What is a Chat Client?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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A chat client is a software program designed for use in online chat rooms. It might also be associated with Instant Messaging (IM) programs, though IM programs are designed to use while cruising the Web. This makes standard IM programs more akin to a plug-in than a fully featured chat client. What IM programs and a chat client have in common is that they both allow real-time communication between people who are online at the same time. As soon as a participant types a message and hits “send” in the chat or IM program, the recipient sees the reply inside his or her own chat or IM program.

However, similarities end there. While an instant message communication is usually between two people who are cruising the Web, a chat program makes use of a separate network designed to allow numerous people to talk to each other in real time. Using a chat program, a participant can discuss one of countless subjects with dozens or even hundreds of other people.

Various “chat rooms,” each with their own subject matter, are located at unique network addresses. The user chooses what subject she or he would like to discuss, then joins the chat room. Chat rooms operate 24/7, and at any given time, a particular chat room might be jumping with hundreds of participants or virtually empty.

Chat programs operate on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network. Arguably, the most long-lived and popular chat client is mIRC. The “m” stands for the last name of the author, Khaled Mardam-Bey. This is shareware, available for a free 30-day trial.

Another popular chat program is XChat (Cross Chat). This chat client is open source - the coding is available for anyone to review. Open source programs are especially popular, as public scrutiny usually means fewer bugs and fewer security issues. Open source programs are free, and this client runs on Windows or Linux operating systems.

Trillian is a chat client combined with an IM program. It comes in two varieties, Basic and Pro. Many people find Trillian meets their needs. The chat program you prefer will likely depend on your personal tastes.

IRC is considerably more involved than instant messaging and has its own ‘language’ and netiquette. If interested in using a chat program and entering the world of IRC, it’s a good idea to take an online tutor, easily found with a search engine. There are also chat rooms for newbies, where those learning about IRC can practice by talking to each other and asking questions of moderators.

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