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The death of (open) Instant Messaging?

Instant Message services were a Big Thing in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Everyone seemed to use them, and all the wannabe big players on the internet were offering some form of instant messaging. AOL, Yahoo, MSN, Google, you name it, everyone had a service. It was a great way to contact friends, as well as continue conversations started in real life with recent new acquaintances.

There was much competition among the providers to see who could get everyone to use their client and their protocol. Users understandably didn’t want to have to install and run a half dozen different clients to do the same exact thing with all these different services, so naturally they rebelled and gravitated toward open source clients that supported multiple protocols, perhaps not with all the bells and whistles, but well enough to conduct basic text-based instant messaging with their contacts.

Many of these were closed protocol services, meaning that they were intended to work only with a proprietary client, which (tried to) force users to connect to the service with the official client. There were numerous open protocols competing for users as well, and open source multi-protocol clients, which mainly promised a better user experience (with no advertising) and often better privacy, and other useful features such as chat logging and a plugin framework that allowed greater customization and extensibility. gAIM, initially an open source implementation of the AOL Instant Messenger, later morphed into a multi-protocol client that rebranded itself pidgin, to avoid confusion with the AOL-trademarked AIM. There were also Trillian and ICQ which offered similar open source clients with multi-protocol flexibility.

For several years the closed services fruitlessly tried to lock out these open source clients, forcing people to update frequently to keep compatible. Eventually service providers relented and gave up the arms race to lock out the open source clients, and things settled down and became peaceful for a time.

Then came Facebook. The rise to dominance in the social media sphere resulted in a decline of other messaging services. For the last however many years, I’ve mostly used Facebook messages, because that’s what everyone seems to use anymore. Social applications go where the users are, and facebook has the users. I can’t remember the last time anyone has attempted to contact me through my AIM account, and I’ve never really used YahooIM or MSN Messenger, although I technically have accounts because they came for free with a Yahoo or MSN or Hotmail account. I also use gmail chat sometimes, but also with diminishing frequency.

So, when I bought a new laptop back in March, it wasn’t a high priority to set up my pidgin accounts right away. I only got around to trying it just this last weekend. I do a lot of fb chat on a daily basis, but I just used the desktop website for that, and didn’t really notice anything missing by not logging into the other services.

All of a sudden, I can’t use most of my accounts through pidgin.

  • My AIM account has an SSL error when I try to connect through pidgin.
  • The Yahoo IM service is being shut down soon as part of Yahoo’s continued decline into irrelevance.
  • My google accounts warn me that the login is insecure, and recommends that I not allow it. I take my google account security seriously, so I heed this warning. I’m unclear if there’s a way to use pidgin to connect to gTalk securely, but I haven’t really looked into it as yet; if I need to I have the Google Hangouts app installed on my phone, and I can use the gmail web client to chat with people. It’d be nice to have everything in one place, and I’d like that place to be pidgin, but at least I can still access the service.
  • Facebook seems hellbent on closing off instant messaging services to Messenger only. I’d rather never talk to any of my friends ever again than be forced to use Facebook Messenger. The only other reliable method of messaging through Facebook remains the full desktop website; mobile crashes when I try to use it for messaging from an actual mobile device. And FB nags me to try Messenger whenever it thinks to. On my smartphone, Facebook wants me to install Facebook Messenger, which I DO NOT WANT. They started locking out mobile website users of their messaging feature, such that my browser crashes if I try to access the feature through m.facebook.com. I switched over to Trillian for Android, which worked for a few weeks, and now it too has issues. At first I noticed that I could not receive incoming messages that had hyperlinks or images. Now, I can’t even send plain text, although I can still receive it. Hopefully this is something the Trillian developers can work around, but it is looking like FB has resumed the arms race to lock out independent clients from accessing the service.
  • Livejournal has always embraced openness with its messaging, using XMPP for its protocol. So it works well with pidgin still, and out of the accounts I accessed through Pidgin it seems to be the last one standing. But it was never a popular IM option even when LJ was one of the top social media sites, and LJ has been a ghost town for years.

My assumption is that proprietary services want to force you to use the official clients so they can shove advertising down users’ throats, and so they can completely control the user’s client-side experience, including sideloading non-optional unwanted software (what we’d normally just call malware if the purveyor wasn’t a big corporation who feels entitled by EULA/TOS to do whatever they want to their users).

And so it goes with the way of all things, that they fade and die as time goes on. It’s a little bit sad to see the old mainstays fading to irrelevance. But mostly annoying that the protocols that are still going strong have been pulling away from the open clients.

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