June 29, 2011

You've Got Firefox in my Pidgin: Instantbird 1.0 Launches

What do you get when you combine Firefox and Pidgin? No, it's not the setup to a geeky joke (yet) — it's Instantbird, an instant messaging client based on Firefox with Pidgin's libraries providing the protocol support for IM networks. With the 1.0 release just out the door, let's take a look at Instantbird and how it measures up.

Instant messaging is not just a way to socialize and pass the time — for some of us, IM is a vital part of the workday. Is Instantbird up to the task? Let's take a look.

Test-Driving Instantbird

Installing Instantbird is simple as pie — download the tarball, uncompress, and there you go. Just cd into the instantbird directory and run the instantbird script and start setting up accounts.

Account setup is pretty easy, I had Google Talk, Facebook Chat, IRC, and Twitter set up in a minute or so. Yes, I did say Twitter. The Twitter support is a bit rudimentary, though. You can see messages in your usual timeline, but not direct messages. There's not an easy way to reply or quote other users, so it's really only useful if you don't do a lot of replying, messaging, or posting on Twitter.

After setting up accounts, I started checking my Twitter feed and chatting with folks on IRC and Google Talk. Instantbird does support quite a few more protocols, of course, including AIM, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ, MSN, and others.

Everything worked fine with chatting, but I did notice a few minor features were missing or required Add-ons to get working. Take, for example, notification of Nick use in IRC. Most clients are configured to notify users when their nick is used in conversation or at least make it easy to configure this. That's not a feature Instantbird comes with by default. You can add this with an Add-on — but it seems to me that should be a core feature of any IRC/IM client.

With Pidgin and many other clients, you can be notified via a blinking icon in the taskbar when you get a new message or whatnot. Instantbird only provides the taskbar icon when you minimize the window, so if you just have Instantbird covered up with other windows, you may not notice that your manager sent you an IM 20 minutes ago while you're busy doing real work.

One thing I like about Instantbird is the concept of Tags in the contacts list. You can tag users with one or more tags to organize your contacts in logical groupings — so a person could be tagged with Buddy, Work, and Editors if you wanted to be able to organize contacts that way. Since I have dozens of people in my lists, but only a few that I talk to regularly, I'm finding this feature pretty useful.

The big feature that Instantbird inherits from Firefox is the Add-Ons. You can customize the theme for the application, the theme used for messaging (such as having bubbles for messages, or old-school time-stamps and plain text), and then Add-Ons that change the functionality of Instantbird itself.

It's easy enough to install an Add-On, though it's not built into Instantbird itself. That is to say, you have to browse the Add-Ons site yourself, then open the XPI file that has the Add-On in Instantbird and install from there. Like Firefox, some of the Add-Ons will require a restart.

So far, I don't see any Instantbird Add-Ons that have a real wow factor. You can re-arrange the tabs in the chat window from horizontal to vertical, or add tab completion to nicknames and IRC commands, or colorize bits of a chat. All well and good, but nothing overwhelmingly interesting that's unique to Instantbird. The Status Reminder Add-On is a good touch, though. The NickServKiller Add-On is also appealing, if you get tired of seeing the NickServ messages when connecting to IRC.

For the most part, though, Instantbird is your standard IM client with a Firefox flavor. It gets the job done, which is what you want from a 1.0 release. Now it's up to the Add-On community to make it really awesome — or not.

Time to Switch?

My IM client of choice right now is Pidgin. It's mature, full-featured, and does everything I need it to. I like the fact that the protocols I use most (XMPP/Jabber/Google Talk, AIM, and IRC) are well-supported and I can use them all in one client. (Some IRC clients are better than Pidgin for IRC, but most of the time I don't bother to set up a separate client for IRC.)

The main questions in my mind were whether Instantbird had the features users need, whether it's stable, and if it has any features above and beyond Pidgin that make it worth switching. For the most part, Instantbird gets a resounding yes on the first one, but a maybe and not quite yet for the last questions. It's stable and full-featured, but it's not yet better than Pidgin on Linux for most intents and purposes. (Since it's cross-platform, it may well be a better choice on Windows, but I haven't tested that out.)

If you haven't settled on an IM client of choice, then Instantbird is well worth trying out. It has a couple of areas to improve in, but it's solid and might be a winner for you. If you've already picked a client that works well for you, I don't think Instantbird is quite yet compelling enough to demand a switch. But the Add-ons might just put that over the top if the project can gain momentum.

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