Monday, October 22, 2007

Exploring Instant Messaging

Per yesterday's post, over the next few months I'll be piloting the policies, technology and governance of flexible work arrangements. I live by Blackberry email, cell phone, web, and remote data access via SSLVPN. To expand my communications horizons, I'll be testing Instant Messaging, various forms of video teleconferencing, blogs, wikis, collaboration tools and group authoring tools.

Here's my summary of the Instant Messaging experience to date. As an email guy, it has taken some getting used to. I've done IM via AOL's Instant Messaging (AIM), MSN Messanger, Yahoo, Google Talk, a local Jabber server at BIDMC, and Skype's chat features.

To me, effective chat needs to work across all platforms, so I tested all of these platforms with my Ubunu Feisty Fawn Linux laptop, my Macbook, and my Dell Optiplex 745 desktop running Windows XP. For Linux, I used Pidgin and Gajim open source instant messaging programs. For the Mac I used iChat (AIM and Jabber) plus downloaded clients from MSN, Yahooa and Skype and for the Windows machine I downloaded clients from AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and Skype. For Google Talk, I also tried the Google web client that's part of Gmail by using a Firefox browser on all three computers.

My first impression is that IM can be an effective communication tool for realtime emergent situations, for quick questions (when is the meeting?), and for brainstorming as a group. One frustration is that my collaborators have accounts on different IM platforms. With email, I simply send to the address of each server used by my collaborators. With IM, I must login to the same service each is using. My Linux clients enable me to login to multiple IM services simultaneously, but I still need to create and remember the credentials to accounts on all these services.

Some of these services support video and voice chat. Here's what I found

AIM - Windows AIM client supports chat/voice/video, Mac iChat supports chat/voice/video, Linux Pigdin/Gaim supports chat only. All use the proprietary OSCAR protocol.

MSN - Windows Messaging client supports chat/voice/video, Mac aMSN open source application supports chat/video, Linux aMSN open source applications supports chat/video. All use the proprietary MSNP protocol

Google talk - Hosted implementation of the industry standard Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) protocol and the extended Jingle protocol. Works with any standards-based chat client such as Trillian for windows, iChat for Mac, Pidgin/Gajim for Linux. Supports audio via a downloadable Google talk client for windows, iChat for the Mac. No audio support for Linux.

Yahoo - Windows Yahoo client supports chat/voice/video, Mac Yahoo client supports chat/video, Linux Pidgin/Gaim supports chat only. All use the proprietary Yahoo! Messenger Protocol

Skype - Windows Skype client supports chat/voice/video, Mac Skype client supports chat/voice/video. Linux client supports chat and voice only. All use the proprietary Skype protocol.

Bottom line - All provide text chat on Linux, Macs and Windows. Skype provides voice on all these platforms. None of these services provide video and voice on all platforms.

My conclusion is that text works very well as long as your collaborators are on the same IM service. Voice is problematic across platforms and has very uneven quality that's a function of many bandwidth bottlenecks from desktop to desktop via the internet and the IM service provider. Combined Voice and Video across platforms is not yet possible with IM.

Has anyone had a different experience?

More to follow as the exploration continues.


Mark Turuk said...

Hummingbird, before it was acquired by Open Text last October offered a secure instant messaging client.

You could save the record of the chat directly into the document and records management repository, (assuming that you had that system installed), with a single click. Given the nature of DM/RM/Collab, the chat would then be search-able by all with the rights to do so.

This is probably more relevant to legal and government circles, however.

I've been using instant messaging clients since 1996, and would say that Google Talk remains my favourite for easy of use / reliability, with AIM and MSN following in that order. I have not played with Linux, nor do I expect to.

I have been enjoying your blog so far, and look forward to seeing where you take it.


Standard Disclaimer: my blog is not entirely safe for work environments .

Richard Dale said...

I use Miranda - opensource - multiprotocol chat client which does a great job of providing good text IM to all my friends on all their different protocols.

Unknown said...

I believe Pidgin allows you to log into Google talk and that helps cut down on the clients.

Not sure if you want to include IRC, or the IM equivalent. I find that it is conducive to collaboration especially if you have a critical mass of people logged in. Also fairly easy to run your own IRC server.

You could make a case that a platform like Second Life allows for IM type communication, plus additional features and the accompanying overhead.

Enjoying your posts-

Unknown said...

John - great blog so far. Keep it up!

We have offices in Honolulu and Boston (and some remote workers), and we've really struggled with communication and keeping everyone up to date. It's a much bigger challenge than I ever anticipated.

First off, my biggest piece of advice would be to check out Campfire from 37Signals. It's more of a chatroom approach than traditional IM. We've found it invaluable to have a "shared space" where we can maintain an ongoing conversation.

Secondly, we've found video chat to be incredibly disappointing for anything bigger than 1-on-1 conversations. The quality just isn't there for telepresence-like group meetings-- although Apple comes the closest with H.264 in iChat. Skype video on can also be OK.

Often times we'll use our Cisco phones to make a SIP call (we've found the speakerphone audio quality to be much better this way) and then boot up a video chat session as well while muting the computers' microphones. The video provides some additional context and a slightly improved collaborative environment. I see the new version of iChat included in Leopard as being a big leap forward in this regard as it'll be easy to switch back and forth between video and documents, presentations, etc.

Anyway, as I said we've found this to be a huge challenge both technically and culturally. Can't wait to hear what approaches and tools work for you...

- Jake

Unknown said...

I'm a youngin, 25 to be exact. I started though, early in high school with ICQ, and have used just about every IM there is, basically to keep in touch with various friends who use various IM software.

What did I settle on? Adium, for my new macbook, which combines them all.

When I interned at IBM, I often heard people complain of their IM software, some proprietary thing they used. Apparently they felt annoyed with the ease at which people could message them and expect almost an immediate response.

At what point are we too connected?

Terry Barbounis said...

I use Adium on my MacBook Pro and Trillian on Windows XP. Both are universal clients and I never experience any issues with either.