In December 2017, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was shut down for good. Beloved by many, this was the first platform to offer online instant messaging, and its lifetime spanned more that two decades. Many will reminisce over embarrassing screen names and tying up their parents’ phone lines, but of course, all good things must come to an end. With other messaging apps taking centre stage, it was simply time to draw the curtains on the AIM era.
Thankfully, plenty of other options out there come well-equipped to replace AIM as everyone’s favorite messenger system. Indeed, during its steady demise in recent years, many favorites have already surfaced, including WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram. While most of these systems offer security superior to that of AIM, they each come with a set of pros and cons of their own.
In this post, we’ll reveal ten alternatives to AIM and describe what they have to offer. As we take privacy and security extremely seriously (and believe you should too), we’ll put extra emphasis on those aspects of each platform. Let’s get started!
What to look for in AIM alternatives
Before we jump into the options out there, we’ll take a look at the most important things to look for when selecting the right one for you.
Security and privacy
At the forefront is security and privacy. Aside from being first the messaging application to gain widespread appeal, AIM prided itself on offering encrypted messaging. Although, it did log metadata such as login time and user IP address.
As with any application you use today, you’ll want to know how your information is being handled. Not only are messaging systems under threat from interception, but there is also the danger that other personal details could fall into the wrong hands.
The most important thing to look at is whether your chosen platform offers end-to-end encryption. With this feature, only the sender and receiver can view the content of each message. Ideally, not even the company that owns the app can see what’s in there. It’s a good idea to read the small print to make sure. Some apps advertise end-to-end encryption but they actually only encrypt certain forms of media and not others. For example, text and photos might be encrypted but not voice or video calls.
The content of the messages isn’t the only thing you might want to protect. Some providers log metadata such as the sender and receiver IDs and the time each message was sent. If these files are stored, then they could potentially be handed over to or otherwise accessed by third parties. These may include law enforcement, advertisers, or hackers.
Another big selling feature of some messaging systems is that they are open source. This means that anyone can review their code and indeed many of the big players have been reviewed by industry security experts.
Popularity and practicality
Security and privacy aside, many other factors will influence your decision regarding which is the best system to use. If it’s for personal use, one of the first questions you’ll ask yourself will no doubt be ‘What are my friends using?’ This is important because most applications require both the sender and receiver to have an account.
What’s more, you’ll need to make sure that the platform has a client compatible with the device you’re using. For example, some only offer iOS and Android apps and can’t be used with a desktop computer. Along the same lines, if you tend to switch between devices regularly, you’ll need to know if conversations can be synchronized between them.
Finally, various systems comes with a suite of features that you may or may not deem important. For example, if you love to share videos, you’ll need to know what types of media are supported. Some providers offer different versions for business or enterprise users with additional perks such as large file sharing capacity and conference calls. On that note, there’s also cost to consider. While most personal use services are free, you may have to pay a premium for feature-rich alternatives.
10 Secure Alternatives to AIM
There are a plethora of messaging apps to choose from and the right one for you will really depend on how you’re planning to use it. As mentioned, at the top of the list of must-have features is end-to-end encryption. All of the applications in the list have this going for them. Besides that, they all have something a little bit different to offer. Let’s take a look at what you can expect from each!
Signal is a well-known and highly regarded free messaging software by the reputable Open Whisper Systems. On the homepage of its site, this company proudly shows off its endorsement by well-known whistleblower and privacy advocate, Edward Snowden.
One of the big pluses of this one is that it’s open source. This means that any expert can access the software and review its competency. It uses military-grade encryption with new AES keys used for every single message.
Apps are available for Android, iOS, MacOS, Windows, and Linux. They support text, voice, videos, pictures, documents, and groups. One handy feature — which is offered by quite a few others on this list — is the ability to set specific intervals for messages to disappear. Additionally, every conversation has a ‘safety number’ that allows you to verify whether your contact is secure.
There is no doubt that WhatsApp is a winner on the popularity front, with 1.3 billion users as of July 2017. This free application, which is owned by Facebook, has used the same protocol as Signal since April 2016. However, it doesn’t mean it’s equally secure.
The app includes voice and video calls as well as text, video, image, and voice messaging. It has a built-in camera and voice recorder so you don’t need to switch apps to send media. The capacity for documents is 100MB. Group chats can accommodate up to 256 people and you can sync chats across devices. Notably, syncing across devices is not something that is doable with the encrypted version of Facebook’s other messaging application, Messenger.
Versions are available for Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, and Windows Phone. Additionally, you can access conversations through WhatsApp Web by scanning a QR code with your phone. WhatsApp offers a business version for Android which is mostly geared toward small business owners.
Telegram is currently making news for its foray into the cryptocurrency market. But well before that, it gained recognition as the creator of a secure and widely used free messaging system.
The appeals of this app include its ease of use and ability to sync across devices. It can handle various types of media, including photos, videos, and files. It has potential use in a business environment with the ability to create groups of up to 75,000 members. You can destroy messages using a timer or store media in the cloud. Apps are available for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Windows, MacOS, and Linux, or you can log in through the web.
When it comes to security, Telegram claims to be “more secure than mass market messengers like WhatsApp and Line.” This sounds like a bit of a stretch. It does provide end-to-end encryption, but not by default. You’ll have to use the ‘secure chats’ feature and will then lose the ability to sync across devices.
UK company SQR Systems markets Ceerus to enterprise and government clients, so it’s not really an option for individual users. However, it is secure. It offers end-to-end encryption for voice, video, and messaging and uses the UK government-endorsed Mikey-Sakke for key management. Although, given recent requests from the UK government, its endorsement may not be the best selling point.
Another main feature of Ceerus is the use of compression to ensure a more reliable service. With this, you shouldn’t experience the latency issues that many other voice and video services are plagued with.
You can use the free standard application which is available for iOS and Android or pay a licensing fee and create your own custom app to suit your business.
Pryvate claims to be “the only fully secure mobile encryption app platform that allows business and personal communications to remain private and free from hacking.” It employs the ZRTP protocol which was developed by PGP creator Phil Zimmerman and is utilized by Silent Circle (see below).
Pryvate claims to keep absolutely no record of any communications, since it doesn’t have access to any information. With Pryvate, messages, images, and voice calls are free. If you want to add video calling, it will cost $5.62 (£3.96 GBP) per month. This plan includes other features such as private email and secure file transfer and storage.
Silence (formerly SMSSecure) is another open source software that offers end-to-end encryption. Similar to WhatsApp, it has adopted the Signal encryption protocol. Silence doesn’t collect or transmit personal information. It only reads contacts but never transmits them from the device.
Currently, this app is available for Android and will only work for SMS/MMS messaging. It’s a far cry from many competitors that offer multimedia messaging and calls, as well as other integrated features. On the plus side, it’s free but accepts bitcoin donations.
7. Silent Phone
Silent Circle is perhaps best known for its flagship product, Blackphone, a smartphone built entirely with privacy in mind. The same company offers security management in the form of Silent Manage and a secure messaging system called Silent Phone.
Apps are available for iOS and Android, as well as Silent OS (Silent Circle’s own Android-based software).
This application enables you to send text messages and make voice and video calls, including conference calls with up to six people. Files up to 100MB in size can be sent and received. It includes a burn functionality feature which means you get to choose when message are deleted.
This is a solid option for those looking for the utmost privacy, but it comes at a price. At $9.95 (£7.00 GBP) per month, you’d have to weigh up if you could settle for a lower cost or free option.
Before we move on, there’s one more thing that this one has to offer. As an add-on, you can opt to use Silent Phone with conventional calls. This means when you call mobile or landline numbers; your end of the call will be encrypted so you don’t have to worry about eavesdropping.
Wickr offers three messenger products depending on your needs. There’s Wickr Me for individual use, Wickr Pro for businesses, and Wickr Enterprise for larger scale corporations. The first is free, and the business versions start at $25 (£17.60 GBP) per user per month. It is compatible with iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu.
Similar to others on the list, this app has a self-destruct feature, dubbed by this provider as ‘persistent ephemerality.’ This lets you control the amount of time for which your messages and files are accessible. Wickr operates with perfect forward and backward secrecy such that none of the user content can be accessed. Each message or call generates a new key.
Wickr Pro offers some additional features. It provides contact authentication which warns users should a contact become unverified. It has a secure room option and allows the sharing of files up to 5GB in size.
Similar to Telegram, using default settings, Facebook Messenger is not end-to-end encrypted. Instead, you can turn on a feature called ‘Secret Messages’ which will ensure your messages are protected from interception. Since the encryption happens at the device level, you will not be able to view secret messages on multiple devices. What’s more, group messaging with end-to-end encryption isn’t supported.
If you don’t manually turn on the secret feature, then all of your messages are stored on Facebook’s servers. Still, with 1.2 billion users as of April 2017, you may find yourself being forced onto this free application by friends. Apps can be downloaded for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, and messages can be accessed online.
Threema is probably one of the most standout systems on this list in terms of what it has to offer. On the surface, it’s similar to the others in that it encrypts messages, voice calls, group chats, and files.
One of the biggest draws of this app is that it creates a random Threema ID. You don’t need to link a phone number or email address to it unless you want people to be able to find you easily. Other information such as groups and contact lists only reside on the user’s device, and messages are deleted immediately after delivery. No metadata is collected.
The Threema cryptographic library is open source and available for review. The platform can be used with iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, and Threema Web means you can view messages online any time. If you’re looking for something for business, there is Threema Work, which starts at 1.40 CHF ($1.48 USD or £1.04 GBP) per month.
All of these platforms certainly surpass the capabilities of AIM. Chances are, you’ve already tried a few out for yourself. Many of these networks will change over time, especially as governments bring in new regulations surrounding privacy and surveillance.
As such, it’s important to stay abreast of what’s happening in the world of data security and hand-select the messaging option that’s right for you. Are your friends or colleagues hesitant to follow suit? Now you’re armed with all the information you need to persuade them to switch!
Tips for keeping communication secure and private
Aside from looking for a secure messaging system, there are a few other things you can do to keep your communication secure and private:
- Use a VPN: A VPN encrypts your traffic and route it through an intermediary server. This means your activity can no longer be tracked by your IP or third parties. There are plenty of free options available, although paid plans are typically far superior and won’t set you back that much.
- Encrypt your email: Even if you use messaging systems for some communications, it’s highly likely you use email for others. Encrypting your email scrambles its content so that, even it’s intercepted, it can only be read by its intended receiver.
- Use stronger passwords: With so many passwords to remember, it’s tempting to use the same or easy-to-remember credentials. Obviously, this will put the security of your account in jeopardy. It’s worth it to create strong passwords and possibly use a password manager to help you keep track.
- Follow best practices when traveling: Whether you’re using a cybercafe or accessing public wifi while traveling, you’re communications are at risk. Follow best practices to increase security and privacy. This doesn’t just apply to going abroad; even using wifi at your local Starbucks could make you vulnerable.