mcabber and IM

I've always rather enjoyed this post that I wrote about instant messaging programs. My issue is that I use IM a lot. A lot. I communicate with colleagues, friends, and frankly, if you want to get a hold of me, IM is often the best way to do this, and frankly for a lot of communications I prefer it to the phone.

Nevertheless, IM clients, on the whole, are mostly pretty bad. Right? They distract, they filter information poorly, they take up a lot of room on the screen, and are as a class pretty inconsistent. This is probably because no one really expected people to use instant messaging technologies in a serious way.

But here we are.

The leading IM client, really, for people who rely on this kind of thing is Pidgin (and the other libpurple based clients), which make it possible to connect to lots of different services at the same time but only have one roster/buddy list. It's a good solution to the "multiple networks/accounts" problem, but the truth is the quality of the implementation varies, and the user interface is... awkward and rigid [1].

There is, however, this program called mcabber that provides the ability to connect to one xmpp account, in a terminal-based (ncurses?) environment. It's not perfect, nothing is, but its a lot better than the other options.

While I've not been able to switch to using only it for my IMing needs for a couple of reasons, mostly related to my xmpp server/provider, but I have used it exclusively for a number of days and the experience is pretty good. Reasons I like it:

  • Everything lives in one window, and chat windows have equal footing, like buffers in emacs, say. That's really nifty.

  • The key shortcuts are really simple, and quite intuitive. Thats key in a terminal application

  • I can run it in screen, and pull the screen over ssh to my laptop when I'm not in front of my computer. Though xmpp is generally really great about multiple connections, sometimes it's best to not have to deal with that fussing.

  • I like that it supports PGP encryption, though I don't have anyone with whom I can encrypt conversations with, but that always seems to be a minor detail.

    Though, this isn't to say that it's all good. There are some problems that I've had. Though to be fair, my complaints here are much fewer than with most other XMPP clients, so that's a good thing, right? Complaints:

  • No support for service discovery. Which means you have to install psi--basically--if you're serious about getting the most out of XMPP. This is... unfortunate.

  • It takes a lot of work to get configured and get key bindings set up. I'm mostly of the opinion that it's always best to give users a set of key bindings to start with and then let them customize as needed, and the default screen layout isn't particularly useful or economical (put the status window at the top, and make it smaller, for starters).

  • It doesn't support multiple connections/user-ids. This is a biggie, and while I don't (really) object to the fact that it doesn't support other protocols, I think the reality is that most users probably have and need to use more than one identity at once, so that's a noticeable hole.

  • I'd also like an easy interface for producing system notifications give me a setting option to pile messages (username, excerpt of x characters, time) to a pipe (|) and I'd be very happy indeed.

  • I couldn't decide if the fact that there was only one "text entry field" (mini-buffer) for all outgoing message buffers. Which meant that, particularly with scroll back, that it was easy to cross contexts unintentionally.

My last complaint isn't so much a complaint about the software itself as it is a complaint about the instant messaging space in general. Basically, I think there has to be a way to filter this kind of communication. Ways to setup client-independent rules regarding statuses, auto-responders, and notification level. I've said that this should be "along lines of procmail," but I don't quite know what, even that, would look like. But someday, it's coming, and I for one can't wait.

But all in all. It's a great program and you should check mcabber out, if you're intense about jabber/xmpp and instant messaging (and living in the console).

[1]So there was a pretty notorious fork-threat in the Pidgin project a while back over a sort of deterministic user interface decision, which I return to every now and then as an example of both intra FOSS project politics gone awry, and user interface design gone awry. I'm not dredging up the flame war, because the truth is I really hate GUI applications writ-large, so on some level its nothing specific.
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