Group chat showdown: Which instant messaging service is best for your business?

What happens when your team needs to have a conversation, yet coworkers are scattered across town or even around the world? Conference calls can be pricey and inefficient: Talkers often overlap, no one can hear each other well, and there's no record of who said what. Oh, and you can't exactly share a file over the phone.

Sometimes, when you can't meet in person, it's better to meet in a virtual space. Group chat services offer private rooms for business discussions, with handy features like transcripts, file sharing, and mobile apps. It's like regular instant messaging, but with an express focus on group conversations.

I put three popular group-chat services through their paces: Campfire, HipChat, and Imo.im. The first two were built with business users in mind, while Imo.im is a more general-purpose chat system that offers cross-platform compatibility--meaning you can talk with others regardless of what existing IM service they already use: AIM, Facebook, Google Talk, MSN, Yahoo, and so on.

Speaking of those more traditional IM tools, any one of them will do in a pinch. But they're more tailored to one-on-one chats between friends than mission-critical discussions with groups. Read on to find out how a more specialized service can help you keep in touch with far-flung workers--and which one offers the best mix of features and affordability.

Interface

Although there may be times when you need to chat on the run, it's a safe bet you'll do most of your messaging on your laptop or desktop. Consequently, you'll want a chat service that looks good and, more importantly, offers a simple, streamlined interface.

Emphasis is on "simple." The last thing busy workers need is a learning curve, so if it's not immediately clear how to join a room, share a file, or review the chat history, then that's no good. Fortunately, all three services keep things fairly straightforward.

Campfire and HipChat, for example, rely on the concept of the lobby, which is where you can see all your rooms (each represented by a tab), get status updates on each one (such as who's chatting and for how long), and create new ones. HipChat has the slightly prettier front end, and its lobby conveniently lists both online and offline users. From here, it's a simple matter to start a one-to-one chat with anyone who's online. Campfire doesn't work that way, instead it forces users into a designated room. What's more, it doesn't provide a list of who's online. Ultimately, I like HipChat's approach better.

Imo.im, which for many has taken the place of recently discontinued cross-platform chat service Meebo, works a little differently, listing in a right-hand column your available and offline "buddies" from various services. To start a chat with someone, you just double-click his or her name. The interface can look cluttered and a bit confusing at first, at least until you shut down the social-minded Meet New People column on the left.

All three services work within the confines of your Web browser, but HipChat also gives you the option of using an Adobe AIR-powered desktop client. This doesn't really add much in terms of features, but it might prove useful in organizations that block various websites, and some people like keeping their chat clients and browser windows separate. Ironically, you need a browser to install the AIR client, and I ran into problems getting it to work in Google Chrome. After a quick switch to Firefox, the installation went fine.

Ultimately, HipChat offers the best overall interface, though Campfire runs at a close second. Imo.im often feels cluttered and busy, though the actual chat area is clean enough to be practical.

Features

Campfire, HipChat, and Imo.im all cover the chat basics pretty well, meaning that in addition to straightforward instant messaging among multiple participants, they let you share files, store and search transcripts, and so on. But as you might expect, some fare a little better than others in certain areas.

For example, in Campfire and HipChat, you can upload a photo that gets instantly embedded into the chat thread--a great way to show your group, say, a new product or website redesign. These two also keep a running tally of all your uploads. With Imo.im, shared photos (and other files) aren't embedded as actual images. Instead, they're represented by a link. One click opens a file in a new tab, but it's still an extra step that bounces you away from the chat. And although those links remain in your chat history, there's no separate listing of them for easy review later on.

Speaking of history, any decent chat service will keep a record of each chat session--and all three of these do exactly that (though not always by default; in Imo.im, you must enable the option). Campfire keeps histories neatly organized in an omnipresent tab: Files, Transcripts & Search.

In HipChat it's a little different: You first venture into any given room and then choose Browse Chat History from the Room Actions menu. Alternately, you can access a Chat History tab from the HipChat home screen in your browser--but that option doesn't appear in your HipChat lobby. It's a slightly odd disconnect that can be confusing at first.

Imo.im has arguably the best conversation browser. You simply click History for any person or group, then click the date of the chat you want to review. And it has embedded search options for the selected chat and for your entire chat history.

On the flipside, Imo.im doesn't let you invite outside people to your chat groups, something you can do easily in Campfire and HipChat by enabling "guest access." That immediately generates a link you can share with others, who simply click through, enter a name, and join the conversation. That's handy for enabling one-time access or allowing folks to participate without first having to sign up for an account. In Imo.im, only people you're already connected to can join a room, but it's a snap to add them just by dragging and dropping from your buddies list.

At any given time during a chat, you might want to spin off the conversation to a conference call. Campfire makes this blissfully easy. Just click Start A New Call and Campfire instantly embeds a phone number and password code in the message thread. Imo.im offers voice and audio chats (if you have a webcam or headset), but only between two buddies; there's no outside conferencing option for multiple users. HipChat has the same limitation, offering only webcam-powered one-on-one video calls.

That said, HipChat includes two features that can transform how coworkers engage each other. First, simply by clicking someone name in a room's list of participants, you can initiate a private, one-to-one chat session with that person--sort of like the online version of "let's take this offline." It's an incredibly useful feature that IMO.im offers but is mysteriously lacking in Campfire.

Second, HipChat lets you summon coworkers who aren't already part of a conversation, or aren't even online. For example, by typing "Hey, @JaneD, care to weigh in on the new logo design?" inside any room, you'll alert Jane to the fact she was just "@mentioned" via whatever preferences she's set up, including notifications via in-app sounds, visual alerts, and even email, SMS, or mobile app push notifications. It's an incredibly powerful tool for staying abreast of group discussions, and makes telecommuting immensely easier. Summoning features are also missing in Campfire.

On the miscellaneous-features front, HipChat has dedicated spell-check in the AIR client. Otherwise, like IMO.im and Campfire, it relies on your browser's built-in checker.

Mobile

Although chatting via a tiny smartphone keyboard is not my definition of a good time, sometimes you have no choice but to weigh in when you're on the go. Thankfully, all three services offer free mobile apps--though not for every platform.

Campfire, for example, supports only iOS. Android users can try third-party app Bonfire, which gets the job done but costs $4.99. HipChat has apps for Android and iOS, but also allows chatting via SMS (which could get expensive if you don't have an unlimited texting plan) for users on other platforms.

Imo.im comes in app form for Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Nokia, though I found the iOS version (the only one I tested) to be much like the web version: a bit cluttered and initially confusing. The Campfire and HipChat apps, by comparison, were clean and simplistic. But all three provided everything I needed for mobile messaging, including the option to upload pictures on the fly.

Pricing

It's hard to beat free, which is why you should at least try a few chat sessions with Imo.im, the only free service in the group. Campfire offers four different plans, starting at $12 per month for up to 12 chatters and 1GB of online storage (but no conference calls). The $24 per month Plus plan affords 500 conference-call minutes, 3GB of storage, and up to 25 chatters. Larger companies may need the $49 per month Premium plan and its support for 60 chatters, 10GB of storage, and 750 minutes.

HipChat charges a flat rate of $2 per user per month, though that includes unlimited storage. If you have 10 people in your crew, that's $20 monthly--more than Campfire charges for its 12-user Basic plan. Bump that number to 25 and you're looking at $50 monthly--twice what Campfire charges, and with no conference calling.

Both services give you 30 days to test the chat waters, though Campfire requires a credit card for that trial; HipChat doesn't.

And the Winner Is...

If you need to keep in touch with far-flung members of your team, any one of these chat services offers a versatile virtual meeting room. That said, HipChat takes the group chat crown for its @mentions, one-to-one private sessions, polished interface, and smart "who's online" roster. We can only hope that some day, Atlassian, the company that owns HipChat, adds Campfire's nicely integrated conference-calling features, as well as Imo.im's search-friendly history browser.

HipChat is the most expensive option, but we feel its features are worth the price. And when you're trying to get serious work done in a virtual office environment, $2 per employee isn't an exorbitant monthly fee.

Campfire

HipChat

Imo.im

Compatibility

Web browser

Adobe AIR desktop client; Web browser

Web browser

Mobile

iOS

Android, iOS, SMS

Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Nokia

Conference calling

Yes

No

No

File sharing

Yes

Yes

Yes

Security

256-bit encryption

256-bit encryption

Password

Chat history

Yes

Yes

Yes

Guest access

Yes

Yes

No

Storage

1-25GB, depending on plan

Unlimited

N/A

Pricing

Plans range from $12-99 per month

$2 per user per month

Free

Trial

30 days; credit card required

30 days

N/A

This story, "Group chat showdown: Which instant messaging service is best for your business?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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