Free online communication services that allow users to exchange information more quickly and conveniently than e-mail are gaining popularity in Japan, with the number of users having shot past the 3 million mark.

Instant messaging services, provided by Yahoo Japan Corp., Microsoft Corp. and other Internet portals, allow registered users to exchange real-time messages via the Internet.

IM services are faster than e-mail and easier to use than conventional chat systems, which require users to log in at certain Web sites.

Members registered on “buddy lists” can check whether other recipients are online or offline, while users can also send voice messages via microphones attached to computers.

Users can also hold teleconferences and forward data files via IM services.

Although anyone can download the software required to access these services and become an IM user, communication is only possible among users registered with the same service provider.

An increasing number of firms and citizens’ groups are making use of the service and experts believe IM will become a leading online communicative tool in the near future.

As of April, there were around 3.21 million IM service users in Japan, up 1.02 million from last July, according to Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix Inc.

The proliferation of continuous high-speed Internet access services throughout the nation has apparently contributed to the rapid growth of IM services.

The number of IM users worldwide is believed to be in excess of 100 million.

Japan Computer Access For Empowerment, a nonprofit organization that supports Internet use by citizens’ groups, uses an IM service to conduct biweekly conferences among its members.

Group leader Tadahisa Hamada lauded IM, saying: “With the service, we can have online conferences that are similar to actual meetings. Above all, it is free of charge. Our group cannot keep going without IM.”

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