March 26th 2006 Breaking Free From the Chains of AIM

If you are like most college students, your time in class is rivaled only by the time you spend logged into AOL Instant Messenger. Along with the cell phone, instant messaging, specifically over AIM, has become one of the most popular forms of communication for college students.

And yet you have probably never given a thought towards your instant messaging client.

Oh, sure, maybe you have had to choose between AIM and MSN, or Yahoo! and ICQ, but most likely, everyone you know uses AIM, and so you use it, too. Given the lackluster quality of the other major AIM clients, there probably has not been a good reason for you to switch.

But what if there was another option out there, one better than AIM or MSN? That service is called Jabber, and it offers an immense library of useful features and flexibility to the typical instant messenger.

My forays into other protocols came recently, and was prompted by two incidents: my first use of AIM Triton, and my subsequent “discovery” of Google Talk, a service released to the public last August.

Triton is AOL’s next-generation instant messaging client. If you have not tried it yet, do not bother—simply downloading the software is a waste of time. AOL markets Triton with the tagline “We’re always trying to make AIM better.” It is ironic, then, that Triton is such a step backward in the evolution of instant messengers.

The problems start with its horrible interface, which utilizes an ugly silver theme that is inconsistent with Windows’ look and feel. The problems continue, however, with the IM window, which is entirely too cluttered. There are tabs for each type of messaging Triton employees (text, voice, and video), as well as tabs for each IM. Note to AOL: What works in Firefox does not necessarily translate well to instant messengers. (Granted, I know a lot of people really like tabbed IM’ing, so I am willing to let this point slide—but my other points still stand on their own.) On top of that, the window is cluttered with useless information about the person with whom you are chatting—information that does not disappear.

Even signing off isn’t simple anymore—I had to confirm that I wanted to sign off at least twice before Triton finally signed me off.

After five minutes, I could tell that the future of AOL Instant Messenger looked grim.

Enter Google Talk. Google Talk is an instant messaging client released by Google last August. As a user of Gmail, Google’s mail service, I automatically had a Google Talk account, but I never signed on until that fateful experience with Triton, which prompted me to take a closer look at Google Talk.

At first, I was unimpressed. The official client is not at all extraordinary. The voice chat feature is something I never use. So what’s so great about Google Talk? The answer is simple: Jabber.

Unlike Instant Messenger, which uses a proprietary messaging protocol, Google Talk uses Jabber, an open standard. This means that anyone can develop a client that is compatible with Jabber (and thus Google Talk). (AOL recently released a software development kit for AIM that will allow developers to write their own custom AIM clients, but it is far more restrictive than’s protocol.) For example, instead of the official Google client, I use Adium to connect to Google Talk, without any problems whatsoever. Clearly this feature greatly empowers the user: If users are free to choose whatever client they want, they can find one that fits their needs, rather than use AOL’s one-size-fits-all client that falls far short of any standards of usability.

Jabber chat networks are inherently decentralized; unlike AOL’s system in which all communications are channeled through a central system of servers, Jabber servers are spread out, much like email servers. This allows for some pretty cool features, such as allowing the messaging of offline users (messages would then be retrieved when the user logs on), or setting up a private chat network or server. For example, under Jabber, it would be possible for Bucknell to set up its own closed network in which only students, faculty, and staff could connect and talk to each other; or an organization like Bucknell could run a public Jabber server that allowed students to chat with all Jabber users. Don’t like the policies of one server? Just connect to another Jabber server instead!

The Jabber protocol is designed to be extensible, meaning new features can easily be added. For example, Jabber clients can already encrypt chats between users. While voice chat is only possible between Google Talk users right now, Google is planning to submit changes to the Jabber protocol that will allow voice and video chat for all Jabber users.

Of course, with the entrenchment of AIM, how can one possibly switch to a different service? Google is once again here to free us all. As part of its 5% acquisition of AOL in late December, AOL and Google plan to offer interoperability between AIM and Google Talk in the near future. That means that AIM and Google Talk users will be able to chat with each other.

Thanks to the efforts of Google and the Jabber development team, instant messaging fanatics need not submit to the whims of AOL any longer. The next time someone asks for your AIM screen name, give them your Google Talk contact information instead—and help them move to the light side, too.