Are you tired of "AIM Today" popping onto your screen every time you get onto the computer, in spite of your preference settings? Or, how about random movie ads playing through your speakers with a little postage-stamp size image in your IM client window? Would you like to be able to treat IM addresses more like EMail addresses? Would you like to play with cool 'net toys that use your presence information to put images on maps (see my earlier post)? Me too!
So, here's the deal: There are other applications available on the Internet that will speak multiple proprietary IM protocols, such as those used by AIM and MSN, as well as a newer, non-proprietary protocol known as XMPP. This is the protocol known popularly as Jabber (which was its name before it was formalized in RFCs and recognized by the IETF).
For MS-Windows and Linux I use a program known as gaim. For the Mac, I prefer adium. Both programs support AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, Jabber, and a few others. So, if you have accounts on any of those proprietary systems, you can now run just one program and chat with all of your "buddies." You can also add new friends on Google Talk as well as any public Jabber server anywhere in the world.
If you're a Linux or MS-Windows user, go get the latest version of gaim, install it, and fire it up. You'll be greeted by a 'Login' window and the 'Accounts' window. Bring the Accounts window to the front and click on the 'Add' button. Pick a protocol and type in your screen name and password. Check the 'Remember password' and 'Auto-login' boxes and click on 'Save' button Then, in the Accounts window, check the 'Online' box. Once your buddy list comes up, you can close the Accounts window. Next time you start gaim, you'll be logged in automatically.
Now, if you have a GMail account, you can use gaim for that as well. Click on the 'Tools' menu bar entry and then click on the 'Accounts' entry. In the Accounts window, click on the 'Add' button and select Jabber as the protocol. Enter your GMail username as the Screen Name and "gmail.com" as the server. Enter your GMail password in the appropriate place and check the 'Remember password' and 'Auto-login' boxes. Now, click on the '+' next to 'Show More Options.' Enter "talk.google.com" in the 'Connect server' box and click on 'Save.' Back in the Accounts window, check the 'Online' box for the new account and then close the Accounts window.
A neat feature of gaim is the ability to group buddies. So, if you have a friend who has multiple IM accounts, you can group all of them under one entry in your buddy list. Find the entry you want to be the top of the group and right-click on it. Select "expand" from the menu and then drag the other buddy entries for this person under the expanded entry. You can arrange the grouped buddy entries in any order you want. Click on the minus sign to collapse the list. Normally, hovering over a "grouped" buddy will expand the list temporarily, so you can select which entry to IM. Or, you can just double click on the group entry which will send a message to (I believe) the top online address in the group.
Adium is a somewhat different beast. First off, it is a native Mac OSX application, and is nicely integrated with the Mac Address Book application. Second, it understands Apple's Bonjour protocols, so you can easily find other Mac users on your local network who might be interested in chatting, whether they are running adium or iChat.
The first time you start Adium, you will be greeted by the 'Preferences' window, ready for you to set up an account. Click on the '+' sign and then on the protocol you wish to configure. What you do next depends on the protocol you've chosen. If you've chosen "AOL Instant Messenger" then all you need to do is enter your Screen Name, your Password, and then check the 'Automatically connect on launch' box before you click on the 'OK' button.
Let's say that you're going to add your Google Talk account, so you selected the Jabber protocol. Enter your GMail address as the 'Jabber ID' and your GMail password as the Password. Click on 'Options' in the top of the window and enter "talk.google.com" as the 'Connect Server.' Then check the 'Use TLS...' and 'Automatically connect...' check boxes and click on the 'OK' button.
Provided that you got the Screen Name (/Jabber ID) and the Password correct, you will now be connected to the IM server for the protocol you've just configured. Since the 'Preferences : Accounts' window is still open, you can add any other accounts you might have. Note that for Bonjour, you can put pretty much whatever you want in for the 'User Name' and the program won't care. You're probably best off putting your name, if you want your friends to be able to find you.
That ought to be enough to get you started. Now you can get your friends to switch over too, and you'll all be well on your way to leaving the proprietary IM systems behind. If you don't have a GMail/Google Talk account, get one! Pretty soon, Google should be allowing connections from other Jabber servers on the Internet, opening up literally a whole world of people for you to chat with.
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