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Instant Messenging

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I made a couple of notes on iChat 3 in my initial X.4 posts already. And they still hold today, of course. I’m not a big user of instant messaging and I’m rarely seeing more than a handful of people online in my contact list. This may be due to knowing people who are mostly off-line or who are using some Microsoft service which I can’t be bothered to sign up for.

iChat contacts... most having upgraded to X.4 already In fact, I’ve come to the point where I refuse to sign up for anything not supported by iChat. Sure, there are other instant messaging applications. And they seem to be technically more powerful than iChat. Plus, they seem to suck. The number of times that I managed to do something as trivial as send a message with an image or transfer a file to someone not using iChat is probably smaller than the average number of contacts I see online. Generally, the software, the protocols and the interaction between them seems to suck in this area. (iChat included as its handling of failed transfers to people whose clients can’t handle ‘sophisticated’ transfer such as images remains very shoddy) And iChat offers working audio chats as well. That’s a big plus for me. And as long as the other clients don’t support them, I won’t even consider to join the hang on a second, I’ll quickly switch to iChat crowd.

The only worthwhile competitor to iChat for all this seems to be Skype. It offers an even more limited range of networks that are supported, it hides its text chatting features but it has very powerful audio chat support. The biggest drawback of Skype, though, remains that it’s so darn ugly that it make you want to puke while it fills your screen with oversized windows and overly coloured icons. Not a Mac app at first sight.

Recently I had to opportunity to explore the world of chatting a bit more than I had previously done. And it was quite interesting. My friend Jörg just moved to a place where he couldn’t easily get a phone or DSL line for the duration of his stay. But apparently they had UTMS coverage there, so he got what sounds like a good deal giving him pretty generous wireless data access in the area he is staying in for about the cost of a DSL line. Not as fast, but not bad either. And particularly ‘high-tech’, I guess.

Skype icon As he has only got the data card for this deal and still doesn’t have a phone, he decided to use Skype to call people. They charge a bit for calls to proper phone lines. But the cost is not excessive and it works. So I got a phone call… which was great. Except that it sounded a bit shoddy. The sound quality was that of a rather bad mobile phone connection. Lots of static in there. After he told me the news and his fancy phone setup, we decided that I could just launch Skype as well, so he could save the cost of routing the call to a real phone line.

And after a bit of fighting the system… me still having an old version of Skype… the difficulty of finding contacts on their system… some typos… my nausea on seeing Skype’s user interface… things worked rather nicely. Even better – the sound quality was much better than when it went over the phone line. Pay less, get more. Great! Looking around the Skype application, I discovered that despite its general suckiness, it even supports separate audio output and input devices, so I could use the Bluetooth headset I nicked from my mom’s phone.

Skype Audio preferences

While my parents found that device really troublesome, hard to stick to their ears and too far away from their mouths, I just thought it looked futuristic silly when wearing it but otherwise is quite cool as it means you don’t have to worry about environment noise. In addition it means you can go on listening to iTunes on your stereo while audio chatting, which is nice. After using it for a while I also ‘discovered’ that using a wireless headset has the additional advantage of freeing you from sitting in front of the computer and staring at the screen while trying to speak roughly in the direction of the microphone. I could not only turn around but even walk around the flat. The Bluetooth range seemed good enough to let me go to the kitchen and get some water. I did think, there was more static in the connection at the furthest point, though. (Some packet loss?)

After a bit of bitching about Skype’s UI, I could convince Jörg to go and give iChat a try as well. After a bit of signing up that worked just fine although I had to quit and restart iChat to see him in my contact list for some reason. My impression remains that Skype offers slightly better sound quality while iChat does a better job at cancelling environment noise. iChat’s data transfer seems to be quite minimal as well. So if Apple could decide to up that a bit, they might end up with better overall quality.

iChat icon Now that we were on iChat (which perhaps not entirely cleverly also deactivates iTunes when you’re using a separate headset for audio output), I saw that Steffen was online as well. So I just had to try out the three-way audio chat feature of iChat 3 that I never had the opportunity to use before. My first impression wasn’t too good as I didn’t really see how to initiate a three-way chat and my first attempt, dragging Steffen’s contact from my contact list to the existing audio chat’s window just didn’t work. But in fact it’s quite obvious how to start the three-way chat as there’s a big ‘plus’ button in the corner of the audio chat window. I just didn’t expect something to be in that place because text chat windows don’t have such a button either and you need to cumbersomely open a new new chat from the File menu if you want to expand from a two person chat to a three person one in iChat.

iChat invitation to audio chat with two people in it Once I had ‘located’ that button, I clicked it and was surprised that it opened a menu despite not at all looking like a button that should open a menu. Yet the menu is very helpful as it lists all contacts that you can technically invite and a moment later Steffen saw the invitation presented by iChat, immediately letting him know there are already two people chatting. Nice.

Once he had accepted, the connection became established and we got iChat’s window for more than two people audio chatting:

iChat audio chat with three people

While I hadn’t thought about this before, having the level metres for each participant really helps as they mean you can easily see who’s talking once things start getting mixed up and everybody’s talking at the same time. And even with this bit of graphical assistance and ‘just’ three people attending the whole chat was a bit messy as invariably two people would start talking at the same time, then stop to let the other one continue, and then both pick up at the same time again after both thought the other wouldn’t continue… but that’s more a social problem than a technical one.

To sum up, we used varying degrees of technology, from an old iBook to my new iBook with a Bluetooth headset to a Powerbook with a UTMS internet connection and had a three-way chat. I.e. exactly the same thing I could have had on my parents’ ISDN phone line for the last decade or two. But which I never actually did because nobody could remember the complicated combinations of numbers needed to invoke it. So while computers don’t give us a really new thing here, just an ancient feature in poorer quality (because of the higher latency of internet chats), they have the advantage of making things more accessible for a change. Mildly more accessible I should add, as the number of people having Macs with X.4 on internet connections which are simple (i.e. open) enough to let iChat figure out how to establish audio chats most likely is a rather small one. I just happen to have a disproportionate number of them in my iChat contact list.


iChat contact list windows with different widths As a final note on iChat, particularly with the Google chat service coming along sooner or later, let me once more stress that iChat’s separation of the different messaging services to various contact list windows is anything from ridiculous to annoying to wasting a lot of screen real estate. I want all of them displayed in the same window with iChat automatically choosing the most capable protocol for the contacts who are available via several services. Another thing I’d want are contact list windows with a smaller minimal size. At least in the German localisation of iChat the windows’ minimum width is horribly large. In the English version it seems to depend on the service you’re using. Which is ridiculous but not as annoying.

October 18, 2005, 0:56

Tagged as Mac OS X, software.

Comments

Comment by Chris Clark: User icon

two people would start talking at the same time, then stop to let the other one continue, and then both pick up at the same time again after both thought the other wouldn’t continue… but that’s more a social problem than a technical one.

This issue is, sadly, a technical issue just made more prominent by our social behavior.

With that tiny lag present in today’s long-distance telecommunications (satellite phones spring to mind as much as any VoIP protocol), our natural conversation-mediating skills and turn-taking cues are blown all to hell. These are skills we hone in ‘the real world’ where lag isn’t a problem, so who knows- maybe kids who grow up with laggy telecoms will be better adapted to it (people had the same problem with telephones to begin with: all the body language was suddenly stripped from their conversation), but for now those couple of microseconds response time cause all kinds of frustration. Some day :)

October 18, 2005, 3:55

Comment by Daniel J. Wilson: User icon

“iChat’s data transfer seems to be quite minimal as well.”

Skype doesn’t really make this clear, but they use your computer as a router for other Skype calls, forming a sort of peer-to-peer telephone network. Gizmo doesn’t do this and has similar voice quality with a few advantages like voicemail.

October 18, 2005, 4:17

Comment by ssp: User icon

Chris: Good Point! While the delay introduced by the connection isn’t excessively long and I’m tempted to say that it’s less noticeable than the delay you get on an international call going via a satellite connection, it is funny how these split seconds affect they way we talk and how our talking is geared towards seeing people directly. (Interesting question here: would using video chats make it easier for us here as we could see who will start speaking soon or would the potential benefit of that be killed by the same delay?)

Daniel: I had heard about Skype coming from a company who invented one of the P2P services and kept reading that it was P2P telephony. I used to think that were just dumb blurbs by the press. How would routing other people’s calls through my computer help? Shouldn’t a direct connection always be faster? After a quick look I couldn’t find any info on this on Skype’s site. Could you point me to a page? Thanks.

October 18, 2005, 9:48

Comment by Sören Kuklau: User icon

Here’s a brief explanation from skype.com: http://www.skype.com/products/explained.html

They use very sophisticated and somewhat strongly-encrypted peer-to-peer communication in order to improve speed and reliability.

The two founders are the same people who originally launched KaZAa, although they learnt from the mistakes of adding spyware/adware/malware and publicly committed to not making them again, as you can see from http://www.skype.com/i/no_spyware.png

Skype is a technology that, in general, works exceedingly well. I’ve found that file transfers over it, for instance, are vastly superior over file transfers over regular IM networks. They are encrypted (256-bit AES, unless they changed that — that’s a twice as long key as FileVault’s) and, as mentioned, peer-to-peer. I consistently get almost the full upstream offered by my ISP when uploading to Skype users (provided they have enough downstream); upwards of 85-90 KB/s.

They one major problem of Skype? It’s proprietary, which is how they live off it. I don’t believe that the user should be bothered by this, however, especially not until a really good alternative exists. Which frankly, doesn’t so far.

October 18, 2005, 10:50

Comment by ssp: User icon

Thanks for those clarifications, Sören. Not that I’ve used Skype a lot, but I haven’t seen any problems with my network speed while it was running. Certainly I’d prefer an application that’s using an open standard and capable of interacting with others as well, though.

October 18, 2005, 11:26

Comment by Chris Clark: User icon

In my experience with videoconferencing the discourse problems are made even worse with the addition of video. But that’s a bandwidth issue more than anything; I’d be interested to test it out on faster connections (and with faster computers).

You’re right: all things being equal, video would prove less clumsy because of the visual cues you can glean from your partner during conversation. Unfortunately video will always be that little bit slower than an audio stream, so you can’t win either way.

October 18, 2005, 13:07

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