8 Free apps for cross-IM chats

The world of instant messaging is crowded and becoming even more so. It began with ICQ (does anybody use it today?), which was closely followed by AIM, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. More recently, this trio is being challenged by other IM chat protocols, like Google Talk, and even by social networks like MySpace and Facebook, which have their own instant messaging features.

What this all adds up to is ... a huge mess. To use any of these IM services in their native formats, you have to download and install a different chat program.

That's where instant messaging applications like Digsby, Pidgin or Trillian come in. These chat apps -- which can be described as cross-platform or multiprotocol IM apps -- support more than one instant messaging network. Instead of having the AIM and Yahoo Messenger chat programs running on your computer at the same time, you can use just one application to access your accounts from these two IM networks.

All of these multiprotocol IMs have been developed independently, most without the official support of any of the companies that own the IM networks. Perhaps as a result, the eight multiprotocol IM services covered here are very different from one another in terms of functionality and user interface experience.

In addition, these are all free apps -- at least, for individuals. A couple have "pro" or enterprise-level versions, in which case the free version is a good way to test it out first.

Note that almost none of these multiprotocol IMs (with the exception of Trillian) support the webcam/video chat functionality of the major IM networks (which include AOL , Yahoo and Microsoft). The companies behind these IM networks keep their video chat technologies proprietary, so it's a challenge for the developers of unofficial, third-party IM clients to reverse-engineer this feature.

What follows is a quick (and opinionated) rundown of eight of these instant messaging applications. In the end, which one you will want to use depends on how you feel about using an instant messaging system, and what you use it for.

Adium

The quick rundown: Until recently (when VoxOx appeared), this was the sole multiprotocol instant messaging choice for Mac users. Like Pidgin and Miranda, Adium is open source. But, just as Miranda is only for Windows, Adium is exclusive to OS X. Along with the most popular IM protocols, Adium supports messaging through Apple's MobileMe service and Bonjour network technology.

Quality of user interface: Of course, being a Mac-only application, Adium was designed by its developers from the start to mesh with OS X. The buddy list and chat windows of Adium fit right in with the standard OS X scheme, yet its layout will be familiar to anyone who uses an IM app on another operating system platform.

What sets it apart: Like the other two open-source instant messaging systems, users can customize Adium. The appearances of the buddy list and chat windows can be separately changed. Users have created a slew of AppleScripts that can be installed onto Adium. Most do trivial things such as randomly generating sayings by author Douglas Adams or cartoon character Homer Simpson, but some of these AppleScripts actually provide useful functionality, like language translation or controlling iTunes from Adium.

There are a couple of plug-ins that you can install as well, but nothing really stands out. (One plug-in imports your Skype contact list, so you can type-chat with them through Adium instead of having to use Skype.)

Final verdict: Although it supports several messaging protocols (including the corporate environment networks Novell GroupWise and Lotus Sametime), Adium lacks webcam conferencing. (Video chatting is a feature that the developers of Adium and Pidgin are both working on to add, since their applications share the same underlying software for messaging.)

Still, if you're planning to switch to a Mac, Adium should definitely be on your list of applications to download and install. It's also recommended for offices that use Macs, because of its support of GroupWise and Sametime.

Digsby

The quick rundown: Released toward the end of 2007, Digsby, from dotSyntax LLC, gained a following throughout 2008 among devotees of multiprotocol instant messaging systems. It's apparent why: Digsby not only brings together your accounts with the major IM services, but also those you have on the popular social networks (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter), Webmail services (Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, AOL Mail) and your POP or IMAP e-mail.

Quality of user interface: Surprisingly, despite combining your accounts from a multitude of IM, social and e-mail services, Digsby's interface is clean and very intuitive to navigate. Skin choices include changing color and the layout of messaging windows, but the default skin is good enough the way it is.

What sets it apart: Digsby sets icons on your Windows notification tray to represent your social network and e-mail accounts. It allows you to manage your social network accounts without needing to visit the corresponding Web sites, by alerting you when things happen. So you can keep up with the status of your friends on, for example, Facebook by clicking the Facebook notification tray icon to pop open a news feed. When you receive a message on your account, the notification tray icon tells you by listing how many unread messages there are. Clicking the icon will switch you to your Web browser and log you into your Facebook account message in-box.

Similarly, you can manage your e-mail in-box through Digsby without directly going to your e-mail (or Webmail) account. When new e-mails arrive, a small pop-up window appears over the notification tray and includes a snippet from each message. By clicking the e-mail notification icon, you can then mark each of your unread messages as read, delete it or report it as spam.

Like the Web-based Meebo, Digsby lets you embed a widget on your Web site so visitors can chat with you through your site.

Final verdict: Digsby is simply the best choice right now among the other multiprotocol messengers. It's a well-designed, stable balance between features and user experience. However, it's only available for Windows. (The developers say they are working on OS X and Linux versions.)

Instan-t

The quick rundown: Instan-t, from Interactive Networks Inc., has been around for a couple of years, but still remains somewhat unknown. That's surprising considering this multiprotocol IM features a nifty virtual conference room with video and audio chatting. Instan-t is available only for Windows. There are several server-based and hosted enterprise-level editions.

Quality of user interface: Most major settings can be accessed and adjusted directly from the buddy list window. For example, you can quickly sort your buddies -- grouping them together by the network service they are on, or show the names of those who are offline -- by easily clicking appropriate icon buttons.

However, there are a number of quirks that, while each may be minor on its own, add up. For example, Instan-t lacks conveniences to help you manage your buddy lists and make your overall IM experience better. You can add friends, but there doesn't appear to be a way to delete them. The size of text in both the buddy list and chat windows looks small, particularly if you're using Instan-t on a high-resolution screen, yet the font size cannot be adjusted. The layout format of the chat windows cannot be changed either.

Instan-t is also available in Web site form as Instan-t Express. While similar to Meebo, its interface isn't as versatile. For example, you can't pop out the buddy list and chat boxes into their own Web browser windows. And, bafflingly, there's no "sign/log off" button to be found. If you're looking for a Web site-only IM solution, stick with Meebo.

What sets it apart: Instan-t has a Flash-based multiperson chat room feature. You can invite any person on your buddy list to take part in it, regardless of which IM network they are using, so long as they have a Web browser with Flash installed on it. This virtual conference room also includes video and audio chat. It all works remarkably well -- the audio quality is on par with, if not better than, Skype's -- and manages to do a capable job of showing the webcams of many people at once.

Final verdict: Its user interface is limited, but the virtual conferencing helps Instan-t stand out among the many multiprotocol IMs you can use for free. If you need to hold virtual business meetings that require video or voice, with people who are on incompatible IM network services, Instan-t can conveniently bring everybody together.

Meebo

The quick rundown: Meebo is a multiprotocol IM that runs entirely through a Web site. It launched in September 2005.

Quality of user interface: You sign up for a free account at meebo.com, log in, and add the usernames and passwords of your instant messaging accounts. Then, thanks to the wizardry of Meebo's proprietary JavaScript technology, an instant messaging app listing your buddies appears within your Web browser. You can make the app pop out of the browser and into its own window on your desktop.

While the look of the interface is basic, the overall experience feels very much like what you would expect from a "real," stand-alone IM program. Meebo's engineers even managed to implement video conferencing through its service (between Meebo users).

What sets it apart: Obviously, since Meebo runs on the Web, you don't need to download or install any software. All you need is your Web browser with JavaScript enabled.

Besides this novel concept, Meebo distinguishes itself further by letting you embed an instant messaging widget on your Web site. Thus, you can chat with anyone who visits your site. (Digsby also has a similar widget feature.)

And Meebo make special adjustments for smart phone owners. It offers an interface customized for the iPhone, while owners of the T-Mobile G1 can install a "Meebo for Android" app.

You can start or join group chat rooms, but users on different IM protocols cannot enter the same room. When you start a chat room under, say, the AIM network protocol, you can only invite your buddies who are also on AIM -- a Yahoo Messenger buddy cannot cross over.

Final verdict: Meebo is best suited for when you're stuck using a computer other than your own. Instant messaging through Meebo feels flawless, with nary a hiccup, but its overall performance depends on, of course, how much of a load you're subjecting your Web browser to. And it can become easy to forget that you have Meebo running (especially if you've got a bunch of open Web browser tabs), and accidentally close your IM session.

To partly address this, the developers of Meebo provide a Firefox add-on that places the Meebo app as a sidebar to the browser (and includes some enhanced functionality). Yet this seems to kind of defeat the whole purpose of Meebo being Web-only: If you feel the need to install this add-on, why not just use a self-standing IM application instead?

Miranda

The quick rundown: The developers of this open-source instant messaging system put a heavy emphasis on minimalism in form and function. But it still supports the basic messaging features of five popular IM protocols, and throws in old-school chatting via IRC and the obscure (at least, in English-speaking countries) Gadu-Gadu . Miranda is available for Windows only.

Quality of user interface: What you get with Miranda is the absolute bare-bones minimum. Graphics are sparse. In the default version, there aren't even user icons to represent your online friends on the buddy list.

If you prefer your instant messaging system to look more bulked up, hundreds of skins, themes and other customizations created by users can be downloaded and installed. The Miranda mod scene community appears to be more active than that of other multiprotocol instant messaging programs that allow for user-created content.

What sets it apart: Let's reiterate -- Miranda is all about simplicity. Its sparse interface will either be its major selling point or a "thanks, but I'll pass on this one" for you.

It's an open-source project, but runs only on Windows, which makes it a bit different (in that most open-source applications are compatible with Linux). So it distances itself from the other open-source multiprotocol IM, Pidgin, which has versions for Windows and Linux distributions.

Like Pidgin, Miranda allows for plug-ins. Unfortunately, most of the plug-ins created by the Miranda user community are technically esoteric (one generates a crash report ... thrilling). The most exciting and useful ones provide weather information or tell your buddies what music you're listening to.

Final verdict: Frankly, Miranda seems to have been created for people who disdain the very idea of instant messaging -- but who have to use them for one reason or another (i.e., work, too many friends bugging them to use one, maintaining an online relationship, etc.). So if this describes you, then Miranda might make your IM-ing bearable. The buddy list window is small -- tiny, actually, on most screen sizes -- that you'll easily forget it's running. Plus, Miranda takes up fewer system and memory resources compared to the other multiprotocol IMs.

Pidgin

The quick rundown: Originally called GAIM before AOL raised a stink because of the trademark of its own AIM instant messaging service, Pidgin has been in constant development for 10 years (beginning in 1999). Its developers helped pioneer and fine-tune the idea of bringing multiple IM user accounts together under one app. It runs on Windows and several Linux distributions.

Quality of user interface: Pidgin's interface is generally unobtrusive, sporting a basic, no-frill look. It works well, but even the default set of emoticons is limited. Pidgin's staid skin selection may be because this IM relies on the GTK+ tool kit to run its graphical UI. (GTK+ is mostly used for Linux applications and is known for its no-nonsense and direct approach to presenting user interfaces.)

Mark Doliner, one of the developers of Pidgin, jokes that his messenger's simple interface "should blend in well with other office software, so it might not be immediately obvious that you're talking to friends when you're supposed to be doing work."

What sets it apart: Pidgin is an open-source project, and, like Firefox, it has a community of users who have written lots of plug-ins , which add features to the app or enhance its interface. Notable plug-ins include instant messaging through your Facebook account, Twitter update notification, encrypted messaging and telling your online friends what music you are currently listening to.

Pidgin also supports a whole lot of languages. Basically, if there's a spoken language anywhere on the planet, this multiprotocol IM probably supports it.

Final verdict: Despite its age, Pidgin has evolved into a highly regarded and popular IM app. A few stability issues seem to crop up (at least with the Windows version, perhaps because of GTK+), but such occurrences are usually rare. If security and privacy are priorities for you (like on an office or public network), or you just want to know what's running under the hood, Pidgin is the one to check out.

Trillian

The quick rundown: Named after the character from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , Trillian, from Cerulean Studios, was released back in 2000, making it one of the grand-daddies of multiprotocol IMs. Throughout the early years of its development, Trillian sparked the ire of AOL, which tried many times to block Trillian users from connecting to AOL's AIM network. But the developers of Trillian were renowned for quickly updating their IM to circumvent AOL's blocking. Trillian is only available for Windows.

Quality of user interface: The default skin is colorful, though nothing special, with just enough flash to be interesting without coming across as confusing. Trillian gives you a bunch of emoticons, too, which even includes cartoony animal faces and an icon of a VW bug. While these are fun to use, most of them are incompatible with the emoticon sets of the other instant messaging services. So if you IM a grinning monkey face emoticon to a friend who is not using Trillian, he may see gibberish instead.

For those of you who like to keep a neatly laid-out desktop, the Trillian app can be docked to either the right or left side of the screen.

What sets it apart: Unlike the other multiprotocol IMs, Trillian supports the video chat capabilities of the major IM services (AIM, MSN, Yahoo). However, you'll have to pay to activate webcam functionality if you want to literally see your IM buddies. (The Pro version of Trillian will set you back $25 USD.)

Final verdict: Trillian is a solid IM product, but in recent years has been showing its age. The free Basic version only supports four IM protocols (AIM, ICQ, MSN and Yahoo); for other protocols you need up upgrade to Pro. If you want to use the webcam feature of the major instant messaging system, then it might be worth paying for the upgrade. But besides this, the pay version of Trillian doesn't add much more that you can't get from other apps.

And it may be best to wait: The developers are moving away from the current version of their product and onto a next-generation Trillian, named Astra, which as of this writing is in private beta testing. Astra will support more IM protocols, and incorporate your e-mail and social network accounts, and will come in the form of a self-standing application, Web site front-end client, with versions for OS X and the iPhone.

VoxOx

The quick rundown: This is the newest entry in the multiprotocol instant messaging field, which was released in November 2008. Like Digsby, VoxOx, from TelCentris Inc., brings together your IM, e-mail and social network accounts, but it takes things another step further by throwing in office-level phone capabilities and other professional communications features. The current beta is free to download and is available for Windows and OS X, with a Linux version forthcoming.

Quality of user interface: Where Miranda is an example of extreme (and frankly bland) minimal UI design, VoxOx packs in a lot of layers of usability under its default skin -- which looks like the illegitimate child of the iPhone/iPod Touch user interface and the Xbox 360 color scheme.

What sets it apart: VoxOx has a stronger emphasis on the business user. It's being developed by an enterprise VoIP company, TelCentris, with the goal to sell an expanded professional product later this year that's geared for the office environment. For now, the beta is free and still includes helpful business features like voice mail, conference calling, fax and video conferencing.

A particular function that was designed for office use is VoxOx's ability to route your calls when you are away from your desk. It also offers an automated personal assistant voice that can reply to missed phone calls.

Final verdict: You know those infomercials hawking a kitchen gadget that claim it can do everything and conveniently? VoxOx is kind of like that.

VoxOx's interface might not feel comfortable if you're accustomed to the standard layout of a typical IM. Ultimately, VoxOx feels less like an instant messaging system and more like Skype with multiprotocol IM features added. (TelCentris plans to also make money from VoxOx by selling VoIP talk time through it.)

Another consideration is most of the extra communication features (the office-oriented ones) only work when you're communicating with other VoxOx users. So whether or not these are useful depends on how popular VoxOx becomes.

Nonetheless, if 2008 was the year when Digsby established a name for itself, VoxOx could be the next multiprotocol instant messaging system to keep an eye on throughout 2009.

Conclusions

In the end, which multiprotocol IM app you choose can be boiled down by asking yourself a few questions. If you don't like having to use an instant messaging system, or you use one infrequently, the minimally designed Miranda may be best for you. Meebo is the best option when you're stuck using somebody else's, or a publicly accessible, computer. Instan-t's conferencing features make it a possibility for businesses that need to hold virtual meetings with video and/or audio.

For the most part, Mac users only have Adium, but it's still an excellent instant messaging system, since it was built for OS X. The other multiprotocol OS X-capable IM client, VoxOx, is the newest entry on the list. But it's such a bleeding-edge product that its UI may feel unfamiliar if you're more accustomed to the layout of a standard IM program.

Digsby wins out as the most easy to use, especially because it incorporates your social network and e-mail accounts into its interface. It's for users who use IM on a regular basis to keep in touch with people. The way it allows you to check and maintain your e-mail, without needing to go directly to your account's in-box, makes this multiprotocol instant messaging system a truly multipurpose one, too. I eagerly await the release of the Linux and OS X versions of Digsby.

Howard Wen reports for several technology publications. He can be found at his Web site www.howardwen.com.

This story, "8 Free apps for cross-IM chats" was originally published by Computerworld.

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