iPhone Gems: iPhone OS 3.0 Instant Messaging (IM) Apps
Instant messaging (IM) applications began to appear for the iPhone and iPod touch almost as soon as the App Store came into being last year, and users could occasionally rely upon them to send and receive text-based updates. However, Apple’s restrictions on background applications made instant messaging programs impractical, as users generally had to keep the IM app running to receive messages. But the release of iPhone OS 3.0 and the introduction of Push Notifications has made a significant difference in the usefulness and usability of iPhone and iPod touch devices as viable instant messengers. Now messages can continue to appear even when the apps are not actively running, automatically interrupting whatever the device might be doing to display a message that’s coming in.
Now that most of the major players in the instant messaging world have released updated iPhone OS 3.0 applications, we look today at the current slate of alternatives available on the App Store, taking into account those apps that have added Push Notification capabilities alongside some of the older non-push apps that remain available.
It’s worth mentioning that none of the apps we review today merited an A-level rating or high recommendation, a change from our prior look at instant messaging applications, which found free apps such as Palringo and AOL Instant Messenger competing against expensive alternatives such as Beejive. Today, Beejive has become more affordable but still not cheap, and free apps have sadly been shifting away from leading-edge features in favor of more expensive premium editions. Additionally, although the iPhone 3.0 update has been out for a little over a month, some apps are only just beginning to add Push Notification capabilities, and others have not yet been released on the App Store, at least partially due to Apple’s increasingly lengthy App review cycles. We suspect that a number of other Push-capable IM apps will appear in the coming weeks, and that pricing will continue to evolve as the months go on.
A Note About Security
Generally, third-party applications fall into two broad categories: some supply their own messaging services, such as AIM and Yahoo, while others manage messaging services offered by others. It’s important to understand up front that apps that supply their own services do not normally store your account information—instead, these apps load, pass on whatever account information you’ve stored on the iPhone or iPod touch app, then maintain your IM session state after you exit the app in order to be able to provide Push Notifications. On the other hand, multi-service messaging applications may or may not require you to set up an account on their servers before going on to access other IM services. Some of these apps, such as Agile, Beejive, and IM+, don’t require an account; they store the information on your iPhone or iPod touch just like AIM and Yahoo would. Others such as Fuze, Nimbuzz, and Palringo store your user names and passwords remotely on their own servers in order to quickly log on to those services on your behalf.
This distinction is important to note for some users, given that passwords for services like MobileMe and Google Talk often provide access to considerably more than merely your instant messaging account. We recommend that users who are concerned about the security of their login credentials take time to review the privacy and security policies of the various third-party IM service gateway providers prior to purchase, since users are relying on those providers to maintain the security of their user account information. If you feel uncomfortable storing your typical login information with an IM service provider, you may want to set up a separate account solely for instant messaging to avoid security issues in the future.
Agile Messenger v1.2
Agile Messenger ($10) by Agilemobile.com is a full-featured instant messaging app that provides support for ICQ, MSN / Windows Live, AIM / iChat, Yahoo, Jabber and Google Talk.
Agile Messenger has a somewhat novel user interface, eschewing the standard navigation bar and bottom toolbar common to most iPhone apps for a series of pop-up context menus accessed from various on-screen controls.
The various IM services in Agile Messenger can be configured separately, and users can choose to sign in to each of the services individually, setting independent status messages for each. So, for example, you could be set to Busy in Yahoo, away in AIM, and online for your MSN friends. The status of each of your accounts is represented by an icon in the upper right corner of the screen. Tapping on any of these icons brings up a pop-up menu where you can set the status of that particular service. Generic color-coded icons are used here for each service rather than the icons typically used to represent the specific IM services, making it necessary to become familiar with the colors that typically represent each service.
Tapping on a contact brings up a popup menu where you can view the contact info, move the contact to a group, rename it, delete it, or initiate a chat session.
When chatting with a contact, buttons are available to take a picture with the iPhone camera or record a voice message. Images and voice recordings are uploaded to a server at AgileMobile and the recipient receives a link he can click on to view or listen to the attachments. Tapping on the menu button provides a pop-up menu where you can send saved images as well as performing other functions such as modifying contact info, pasting content from the iPhone clipboard, enabling or disabling auto-correction, clearing the chat history or closing the chat session entirely
Multiple chat windows can be open simultaneously, with each chat session appearing as a tab along the top of the screen. Tapping on the specific tabs or swiping left and right will move between active chat sessions. A setting is also available to separate the contact list by service, in which case tabs will appear for each of your configured messaging services with the contacts for that particular service.
Agile Messenger automatically saves the history of all of your previous chats within the application, and when opening a new chat session with a contact, a button is provided to load in the previous chat history. Saving a chat history can be disabled entirely under the application settings.
Other settings include the ability to customize icon sizes, font sizes and font styles throughout the application, control how long to stay online after exiting the application, forward received messages to an e-mail account, enable or disable landscape mode, and adjust auto correction and auto capitalization settings, among other things.
Agile Messenger takes advantage of Push Notifications in iPhone OS 3.0, allowing you to maintain your connection to your IM services for a period of time after exiting the app. During this time, you continue to appear online to your contacts, and any new messages that are received from your contacts are pushed to your iPhone, appearing as a pop-up notification and displaying an unread counter over the Agile Messenger icon on the home screen. Tapping the “View” button opens Agile Messenger to the contact list and displays those conversations with new messages waiting.
How long to stay signed in and whether to switch to an “Away” status after exiting can be configured in the Agile Messenger settings.
Agile Messenger is a solid instant messaging app with support for the most popular instant messaging services. The interface design is quite nice, though the pop-up menu interface style will appeal to some users, while others will find it too divergent from the common look and feel of most other iPhone apps. Users who like the UI design and layout of Agile Messenger may find it worth $10, but it offers little else for that price to distinguish it from many of the other IM apps for the iPhone. iLounge Rating: B-.
AIM v3.0.2 / AIM (Free) v3.0.2
AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, is currently available from the App Store in two versions: a free, ad-supported version, AIM (Free) and a $3 version, AIM that removes the ads and provides landscape viewing and keyboard support. Other than these subtle differences, the two apps are basically identical and support all of the same features, including Push Notifications.
As the name implies, AIM supports only the AOL Instant Messenger service. Since this is the service that is used by Apple’s iChat application, however, many Mac users may find this to be an appealing option, particularly in the absence of a native iChat client for the iPhone. AIM sports a relatively straightforward and very iPhone-like UI, divided into a buddy list, favorite buddies, contacts, “My Info” and a list of existing IM sessions. Groups are available in a separate listing one level up from the buddy list, in a layout conceptually similar to the iPhone’s own Contacts application.
Tapping on a user name from the Buddy List, Favorites or IMs screen will open up a chat session with that user. If a chat is in progress, the existing session is opened, otherwise a new session is started. Tapping on the blue arrow to the right of each contact will open up an info screen for that contact, allowing you to add the contact to your favorites, move them to a different group, or initiate a chat session.
The Contacts section provides a listing of your iPhone contacts which you can select to either add to your buddy list or send a free SMS message directly from within the AIM app. Note that SMS messages can only be sent to U.S. phone numbers at this point.
The My Info tab shows your own AIM profile in a similar manner to that shown for other users, and also allows you to change your status, sign out, view your location information, and adjust your preferences.
Settings available in the AIM app include the ability to choose your preferred icon set, sort your buddy lists, enable or disable sounds, configure location sharing and enable SMS or push notifications. The push notification settings can be further customized to control how long you remain signed in after existing the AIM app and how much information you want presented in the pop-up window that appears when you receive a chat message via Push Notification.
Note that AIM supports only text-based chats, and provides no ability to send pictures, audio or emoticons. Although not a particularly sophisticated IM app, it has a nice, clean user interface; it works reasonably well for those users who only use AIM or iChat and are looking for a simple text-based IM app at a reasonable price. If you don’t need landscape mode and don’t mind a few ads showing up, the free version is an equally good option. iLounge Rating: B.
Beejive IM v188.8.131.52
Beejive IM ($10) is a popular and very feature-rich instant messaging app for the iPhone. It provides support for all of the major IM services, including AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MSN / Windows Live, Myspace IM, Yahoo!, and Facebook IM. With the release of iPhone OS 3.0 and iPhone 3GS it has been updated to take advantage of Push Notifications in OS 3.0 and the video recording features found in the 3GS. Landscape mode is also fully supported throughout the application.
Beejive uses a typical iPhone interface layout, with buttons at the bottom of the screen for a Buddy List, Favorite Buddies, Chats in progress, Accounts and status, and More. The buddy list groups your contacts by groups and offline status by default, although this can be adjusted in the application’s preferences. Notably, a search option is also available, and useful to quickly find a specific contact if you have a large number of buddies.
Tapping a contact name will initiate a chat session with that contact, while tapping the arrow to the right of the name will allow you to view or edit the contact info. As a nice touch, each contact is linked to their corresponding iPhone contact list record when available, allowing you to not only view more detailed contact information, but initiate calls or send SMS or e-mail messages directly from the contact record. Tapping a phone number will prompt you to either make a phone call or send an SMS message, then will open the appropriate iPhone application to do so. Pressing on an e-mail address composes a new message to that user using the in-app e-mail capabilities introduced in iPhone OS 3.0, allowing users to continue using Beejive rather than quitting the application and returning later.
On the accounts tab, you can view the list of accounts you have configured for various IM services, add new accounts, or modify the status for each account either individually or globally for all accounts. Custom status messages can be set per-account or globally for all accounts, and any custom status messages you enter are automatically saved for later use. You can also configure more than one account for a given IM service, so you could log in as two different AIM/iChat users, for instance.
The More section allows you to view buddies by account or by group, view support information, or set a background wallpaper to use in place of the standard grey backdrop.
Several options are available when chatting with a user. Chats are shown as iChat-style speech balloons, and typing a new chat displays a nice bezeled style entry overlay, with a button to add emoticons.
Tapping on the name at the top of the screen provides a drop-down menu bar from which you can send out a transcript of the current chat via e-mail, attach a picture either from the camera or the saved photo library, record and attach an audio clip, or clear the content of the current chat. If you’re using an iPhone 3GS, the photo option allows you to select saved videos from your iPhone library in addition to still photos, and the normal video recording controls will be available when using the camera so you can record and send a video on the spot. Test videos transferred over Beejive in the same compressed 480×360 resolution used when e-mailing video clips, rather than the full 640×480 of the iPhone 3GS’s camera.
Unlike most of the other IM apps we’ve looked at, Beejive also provides the unique ability to send attachments such as photos, videos or audio recordings directly to the recipient when possible, rather than simply uploading them to a web service and sending over a web link. Although the default is to use web links, direct sending can be configured in the Beejive preferences. This is handled quite intelligently—Beejive will transparently fall back to uploading to an online service and sending a web link when direct sending fails.
Similarly, attachments can be received by Beejive. This includes not only audio clips, pictures and video clips but also other file types supported by the iPhone, such as Word documents and PDF files. When a user tries to send you an attachment, you are shown a chat message notifying you of the attachment. Tapping on the message will display the attachment size and prompt you as to whether you want to download it or not. In addition to being viewed directly from the chat window, received attachments can also be forwarded to another user via IM or forwarded out via e-mail by tapping on the blue arrow to the right of the received item. Photos also include an option to save them to your camera roll.
At this point, Beejive is the only IM client we’ve looked at on the iPhone that allows attachments to be received. This is very useful considering that most desktop IM clients do not send attachments via web-based services like the iPhone clients do, and programs such as iChat will simply refuse to allow you to even try to send attachments to remote clients that don’t support them. With Beejive, this is handled transparently to the sender; they simply send over the attachment as they normally would if you were using a desktop client.
The Settings for Beejive are found in the main iPhone or iPod touch “Settings” app, and allow a number of customizations, including grouping and sorting the buddy list, hiding offline users, previewing chats in list mode, enabling or disabling auto correction and auto capitalization choosing sound and vibrate preferences and customizing colors and status icons. You can also choose to have Beejive automatically set your status to Away when exiting the app, and even auto-respond with a message while you’re out of the app. Of course, Push Notifications can appear when you receive a new message, but the status notification can be useful to advise the sender that you may not respond as quickly.
Push Notifications work as you would expect, providing a pop-up notification and an update to the badge count whenever somebody sends you a message while you’re out of the app. As an added bonus, when you open Beejive it displays a preview of the last received messages from each contact directly within the Chats list. You can customize how many lines of preview information are shown in the Beejive settings.
Beejive is the most advanced IM application presently available for the iPhone. It is currently the only IM application with support for video on the iPhone 3GS, as well as the ability to directly send audio, photo and video files in a chat session without having to upload attachments to third-party servers and send web links, and the only app that can receive any kind of attachments at all. Although we previously felt that Beejive’s $16 price tag was unreasonably high for the capabilities it offered, the expansion of its features and its current $10 price tag make it a much more reasonable option for power users who are looking for a more sophisticated IM solution. It’s still expensive and thus not for everyone, but Beejive offers an especially strong option for business users, as well as serious instant message users. iLounge Rating: B+.
Fuze Messenger v2.0
Fuze Messenger (Free) is a more lightweight entry among iPhone IM applications. Formerly known as WebMessenger, Fuze provides support for Google Talk, Jabber, ICQ, AOL, MSN and Yahoo! through its own portal service. Users sign up for a Fuze Messenger account, which can be done through the iPhone app itself, and then configure other services from there. Unlike the other IM apps we’ve looked at, Fuze doesn’t automatically take you through the process of setting up third-party IM services; instead you have to dig into the settings and find these yourself.