July 12, 2002

Linux IMs for everyone: No matter your taste, there's an IM client out there for you

Author: JT Smith

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -

Somehow, some way, people who are new to Linux have gotten the idea
that Linux has limited IM choices. Because the Unix family was the
first to have popular IM clients, with "talk" leading the way, that's
more than a little silly. It is true that if you want the
latest AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) features or MSN Messenger you're
out of luck, but there are many other clients to choose from and some
will let you talk to your buddies whether they're on AIM, MSN or even
Yahoo.
That last part is very important. People sometimes think that most IM
clients are chosen for their technical excellence or features. No,
they're not. Forthcoming research from Ferris Research shows conclusively
that we choose our IM clients based on what services our friends and
co-workers are already using.

If it's for business, many other factors come into play -- such as
security, message archiving, logging and interoperability -- but even so,
we suspect that the services that the CIOs and CEOs use at home
probably get as serious a look as the corporate IM packages.

Linux IM clients do tend to have fewer features than their
Windows counterparts. On the other hand, some IM users aren't crazy
about IM clients that include video-conferencing, file transfer,
games, N'Sync wallpaper, and the kitchen sink. If all you
really want is good, solid IM service that will let you talk to the
people you want to talk to, then there's sure to be a Linux IM client
for you.

How we tested

While this isn't a comprehensive survey of Linux IM clients -- by my
count there are at least a dozen ICQ clients alone -- it is an overview
of some of the best and most notable IM clients available today.

Each client was tested on a HP Pavilion 7855 PC with a 1-Ghz Pentium
III and 256 MBs of RAM running SuSE 8.0 and KDE 3.0. This system was
connected to the Internet via a Fast Ethernet switch to a SDSL router
running at 1.4Mbps.

I connected, when supported, with users on AIM, Jabber,
MSN, and Yahoo servers for chatting and any other basic functionality
that the client claimed. To all the developers' credits, I rarely
found a feature claim that their clients didn't back up, to at
least a usable level.

That said, most of these programs are still in beta, and you will run
into glitches. None of these blemishes ever got in the way of using
the clients for their main purpose, but if you push their limits,
don't be surprised if you run into some oddities. None of them,
however, were so bad that simply closing and reopening the client
didn't repair the problem of the moment.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you expect these text-messaging clients to also work as video-phones, as their Windows
cousins do, you're in for a disappointment. Yes, you can do
text messaging; yes, you can do file transfers with most of the
clients; but if you want to see and hear grandma in Nebraska, none of
these clients are as able to do that job as well as the Windows clients.
For my tastes, that's not a problem. If I want to do video-conferencing, I want a real video-conferencing program, not an
overloaded IM client. Your viewage may vary.

The programs

AIM
1.5.234
-- If you want it, you can have AIM running on your Linux
workstation today. You might not want to, though. The latest Linux edition
dates from August 2001 and is several iterations behind its
Windows big brother. Last spring and summer, AOL was taking AIM on
Linux seriously. Today is a different story. While no one at AOL
would come right out and say the project is dead, it's pushing up
posies.

Still, once installed, with a modified GTK library, it does give you
all the AIM basics, and if that's all you need, it's all you need.
It should run on most Linux desktops of July 2001 or later vintage.

GAIM 0.59 - - You may not
want bother with AIM for Linux, though, because GAIM out-performs it. This
Open Source IM client works with AIM, ICQ, Jabber, MSN, Yahoo
Messenger, and more IM systems than any of the others. If you
want one client to talk to everyone, GAIM is it.

The newest version, despite its beta number, is much more stable than
previous versions and is now as steady as any IM client I've
encountered. While GAIM is meant for Gnome, you can run it flawlessly
with KDE with the appropriate tweaks.

It's not as feature-packed or as pretty as Trillian on Windows or Epicware's Open Source Fire.app on
Mac OS X, but another point in GAIM's favor is that you can add to its
utility with plug-ins like a spelling checker or RC5 encryption. You
can only encrypt sessions between GAIM clients, but more and more
business users want to that kind of protection, and relatively few
clients deliver it today.

Everybuddy 0.4.2
-- Everybuddy is another Open Source project that tries to talk to all
major IM systems and it does a pretty fair job of delivering just
that. While not as full-featured as GAIM and slightly rougher on the
edges, it's a fine program in its own right.

Transferring files over it can be daunting, with some upload and
downloads unsupported. For example, the site says you can download files from your
MSN friends, but, in the current RPM, you can't. That feature is
still being tested.

On the other hand, Everybuddy does have a few interesting features
that, to the best of my knowledge, are all its own. For example, you
can use a filter with it so that you can try to talk to someone in
another language using AltaVista's Babelfish as your translator.
Thanks to Babelfish, this is more amusing than useful, but it does
show that the developers have an eye to the future of IM.

Gabber 0.8.7 -- Gabber is
a Gnome-based IM client for the Jabber family of Open Source, XML-based protocol IM programs. Jabber is the most
popular IM service after the corporate threesome of AOL, Microsoft
and Yahoo. You can use gateway programs to talk to AIM, MSN, and
Yahoo users with the usual proviso that these may not always work.

Gabber, unlike GAIM, is much more picky about running in Gnome than
KDE. While I was finally successful in getting it to run in KDE, more
casual users should be running Gnome if they want to use Gabber.
That said, once up, Gabber ran fine, although I did run into some odd
crashes. Still, Gabber is a young program and shows promise --
especially with its very attractive user interface.

Kinkatta 1.01 --
Kinkatta is a pure AOL IM client without the other IM service
trimmings. Now in version 1.01 for KDE 2.2 and above and 0.89c for Qt
2.2x and higher, this is a solid, reliable client.

A labor of love by chief developer Benjamin Meyer, Kinkatta has a few
features that other clients don't have. These include the ability to
print directly from the chat window and some advanced message logging
features.

LICQ 1.04 -- The ICQ for Linux
site
declares that LICQ is the best ICQ client around. Who am I to argue? I've tried the others, too, and if I had to have one client, and it had to be just for ICQ,
LICQ is the one I'd pick.

Why? Well, not to put to fine a point on it, but the program just shows
more elbow grease has been applied to its look, functionality and
speed than most of the other ICQ clients. Specifically, I like the
skin support, the file transfer mechanism, the user search capacity
and on and on. If you want an ICQ feature, and it's not in LICQ, it
may not be worth the having.

Yahoo
Instant Messenger 0.99.19
-- One of the major IM companies, Yahoo
is taking Linux IM seriously. Its neat client, while not as fancy
as its Windows clients, includes such bells and whistles as access
to user profiles, stock reports, and email access.

Of course, using the Web and HTTP for this instead of packing it all
into an IM protocol helps a lot. The program is, however, optimized
for Netscape. If you use Konqueror or another browser, you may have
to do some tweaking to get Yahoo Instant Messenger and the browser to work well together.

Yahoo, unlike AOL, is updating its Linux client on a regular basis. The
latest build is from this summer, and I'm told more will be newer
versions will be out shortly. Alas, it's not Open Source.

Despite that, YIM actually has the widest OS support of all these
programs. In addition to its Linux builds, YIM also comes in versions
for SunOS 5.7 and FreeBSD 4.5.

YIM is also limited in that it only works with Yahoo. The good news
about this, though, is that YIM will still be
working come the day that the more universal IM clients are having fits
with the major IM services.

The one for you?

Again, it really depends on what services your friends are on. For
ICQ fans, LICQ is the one to beat. For personal use, though, and as
someone with friends and co-workers on all the IM networks, GAIM is
my favorite.

If you wanted a business IM client that would work with the outside
world, YIM deserves your careful attention, because, unlike AIM- and MSN-dependent clients, it's the most likely to work today and tomorrow.

You should also think about Gabber because Jabber seems posed to become
a major, open IM server force in its own right. Its other advantage
is that if you want an internal business IM system, you can simply
install a Jabber server, and with the right firewall settings, you can
have your own internal Open Source IM system for a minimal
investment.

Mission interoperability improbable

GAIM's one big problem, along with all the universal clients, is that
the major IM server companies; AOL (owning AIM and ICQ), Microsoft and Yahoo
have no reason to want unauthorized clients to use their systems.
Worse still, they have several good reasons to block IM programs like GAIM,
Everybuddy and Kinkatta from their servers: advertising
revenue from their proprietary clients, traffic on the last mile to their
servers, perceived security holes, and cross-licensing deals with
other software vendors, such as AOL enabling Lotus to use AIM servers
with Lotus' Sametime client.

Because of this, AOL and Microsoft have both blocked access to their
servers from non-authorized clients at times. While users want
interoperability, IM companies aren't interested in supporting
clients that don't contribute to their bottom line.

Currently, message protocol changes are used to block unwanted
clients. AOL, for example, uses two protocols for AIM. OSCAR is the
proprietary protocol, and there is no published specification for it.
IM clients that use OSCAR, like GAIM, can find themselves blocked
from the service if AOL fiddles with the protocol. So far, the free IM client programmers have been successful in reverse engineering these changes so that new versions of their clients will work with AIM again. TOC, on the other hand, is a simpler, well-documented Java protocol that AOL uses in its Java-based "Quickbuddy"
AIM client. So many free AIM clients, like Everybuddy, use
TOC.

The bad news for TOC developers is that AOL hasn't worked on TOC for
some time and it's not nearly as functional as OSCAR. So, for
example, a TOC-based client can't support buddy icons or voice. On
the other hand, AOL hasn't shown any signs of blocking access to its AIM servers with
TOC, while OSCAR is changed fairly often to block them.

While open protocols like Jabber and Simple, which is likely to be adopted by AOL and
Microsoft, offer a way out of this programming problem, it's not
likely to stop IM service providers from eventually blocking non-authorized IM
clients using server-based authorization schemes, like Microsoft Password and
Project Liberty, which is supported by AOL.

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