The people I work most closely with are located in New Jersey, Southampton (U.K.), Santa Cruz, North Carolina, Prague, and Hamburg. Instant messaging is an essential business tool. I use Adium, which relies on the Gaim multi-protocol IM software. There are a lot of things about it that prefigure the future of software. [Update: Wow! Check out Eric Meyer’s follow-up.]
Beauty · Adium has a generally wonderful user interface and is remarkably good-looking on the screen, once you get past “Adiumy”, the dorky green duck mascot, pictured to your right. As long as Adium is running, the duck is staring at you in the Dock; he closes his eyes when you’re offline and flaps his wings when someone is chatting to you.
If you don’t like him, you can replace him. In fact, Adium is highly skinnable; out of the box, there’s a huge range of styles you can apply to the buddies list and chat window itself.
Here’s how I have the chat window set up. Note that it’s tabbed, so that unlike iChat, all my conversations are in one non-screen-cluttering window. You can “pull off” one tab if you do want a separate window for one of your chats.
Also, check the little Safari icon at the top. Click on that, and (a second or so later, it ain’t fast) the URL of whatever you’re looking at in Safari (specifically Safari, not the current default browser) pops into your transmit area. That’s how I got the BBC link at the top of that conversation with Brent Simmons.
Here’s a little piece of my contacts list on a slow afternoon; this may strike you as a little weird-looking, but if you’d like something a little more conventional, Adium can do that too, or you can go get yourself a really weird-looking skin.
The take-away: it is obviously not true that Open Source software can’t look good, or have a high-quality user interface.
Open Source · Behind all that sugary OS X UI goo, there’s some pretty powerful software: GAIM, which without any fuss lets me talk to AIM and MSN and ICQ and Yahoo and Jabber, hiding all the details.
One hears that the operators of these networks occasionally make futile efforts to lock out non-proprietary clients; apparently GAIM interprets this as damage and routes around it.
GAIM and hence Adium also offer really secure chat via OTR encryption; just the ticket if you want to plan a revolution or consult your attorney.
Auto-Update · There are two kinds of software: the kind that offers to update itself when appropriate, and the kind that’s broken. Adium is the first kind; not pushy, but doesn’t let you get out of date without knowing it.
Lots of good companies, including my employer, ship software that doesn’t have this characteristic. Please stop.
Shortcomings · After some months of using Adium, there is one capability of iChat that I miss; the ability to paste an image into the chat window and send it to the person at the other end. It does have a “send file” feature, but that’s nowhere as immediate as saying “Look at this.”
But hey, this is Open Source, if it bothers me enough, I can go and fix it.
Oddly, I don’t miss the “A/V” capability of iChat A/V. I had a brief honeymoon with the video capability but in the long run, it was too unreliable to be useful; only about a third of my attempted video calls got through, and so I eventually stopped trying.
For audio chat I use Skype, which is frightening in its ability to cut through firewalls, NATs, and other Internet underbrush.
The Future · Software of the future will be Open Source, will have a sophisticated and smart user interface, will take responsibility for making sure it’s up to date, and will meet essential human needs. Like Adium.