Chat has to be one of the weirdest things on the Internet: we rely on it daily, for work, leisure and more and yet, there is very little interoperability between chat systems, most of which are commercial and proprietary. We try to send images, movies and play games over the Internet (well, I never play games but I read some people do) by using protocols so archaic and inefficient they make Windows 95 look like a youngster. We rely on the goodwill of one central server, or a small pool of machines, to relay all our messages, therefore defeating the purpose of the Internet — i.e. being scalable, extensible and able to work around issues.
So, why do we rely on chat? Because it’s convenient, interactive and still allows to think, keep track of our conversations with others and conduct business meetings while wearing nothing but boxer shorts. It is only natural then that we try to compensate for the deficiencies of the protocols we rely on by using pumped-up clients that will try, through an endless succession of tricks, to make chat bearable for us.
You want encryption? Clean chat windows? Tabbed chatting? Great history management? A multi-protocol application? An open-source client that seems to be actually used by its authors? Interface notifications that aren’t a pain to see? An extensible architecture? Use Adium, one of the many open-source chat clients for Mac OS X. Now, you want paramount chat reliability (OK, that is an oxymoron but I’m trying to convince myself)? Use the official AOL client but it will come with ads at every corner, fuzzy sounds, a clunky interface, complex preferences, a tendency to scatter files all over the place, no compatibility whatsoever with any feature other than text chat and a slew of weird bleeping and pulsating indicators that I can’t make sense of after 3 years of using the application. Are you more into Aqua elegance and cool features? Then, iChat is for you with audio chat, video conference, nice bubbles, file transfers, buddy icons, status messages, decent smileys and a polished sound set.
I have only 3 mentioned AIM-capable applications here and there many, many others, all with their pros and cons, as well as there are many, many other protocols. The problem is none of these applications sticks to doing one thing well. iChat is a superb audio and video messaging client but its networking and text capabilities are somehow experimental at times. The AOL client is the only one capable of managing a buddy list reliably (iChat coming as a close second) but it is absolutely unusable to chat and Adium is the perfect text client, even though it has a tendency to damage buddy lists and doesn’t do anything other than text.
I’m sure there is a way out. Open source protocols gaining ground makes me hope we will, one day, see a great, interoperable chat client. Apple or the Adium team certainly have gone to great lengths to make the best clients they can within the restrictions set by AIM. Imagine what it would be if these were out of the way!