Tue 29 Aug
If there’s an indispensable kind of software that helps me keep my work and personal lives balanced during the day, it’s instant messaging. It’s absolutely integral to making impromptu appointments, clarifying questions, asking for quick-hit reactions, and planning my social calendar. Because of this, I take a very conservative view to altering my instant messaging tools in any way — I generally don’t like it. Whenever the software I use changes — whether a feature is modified or a new one is added — it can take me weeks of grumbling about its newness before I can get accustomed to it.
For the most part, my program of choice is the superb, open source Adium. As an instant messaging client, none of the others can touch it; Adium is elegant on the whole, extremely pliable in its customization options, satisfyingly capable of talking to multiple I.M. services, and a high bargain at the price of free. I also make it a habit to use Apple’s iChat while at home, more so that I can keep an eye on what Apple’s doing with their instant messaging platform than anything. If I had to choose between the two, Adium would win, hands down.
It’s likely going to stay that way, too, because I’m not particularly encouraged by what I see coming for iChat 4.0, the next major revision scheduled to ship next year with Apple’s Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system update.
This latest version of iChat introduces tabbed chats to the program’s feature set for the first time. Adium has had tabbed browsing for a long time, but in a fashion that’s regrettably typical for Apple, the company has tried to outdo its competition through interface trickery: rather than arranging tabbed chats along the bottom of the message window, like Adium does, Apple has shifted them to the left in a sidebar/pane area.
I suppose you have to give Apple credit for not stealing the work of independent developers, because it’s so clear they could have made a better decision by fully mimicking Adium’s approach. In a way, I wish they had, as it would have made iChat a more viable contender.
The problem with having tabs on the sides is that the left edge of my screen is far likelier to be occupied — and obscured — by other documents than the bottom edge. In fact, I use Adium in just this way: I position my Adium chat window low on the screen, so the row of tabbed conversations can be seen peeking out from beneath my documents. Whenever someone sends me a new instant message, I can see it right away. In the highly technical world of interface design, this is what you call “making shit convenient for the user.”
Still, I think there’s a larger lesson here for designers with regard to fighting the cliché of tabs as a visual organizing principle. In the eight years or so I’ve been doing design for the Web, I’ve seen — and admittedly have also personally attempted — more unnecessary re-inventions of the basic tab metaphor than I care to recount. For some reason, we designers find the basic visual construction of tabs (perhaps most prominently displayed at Amazon.com) to be dissatisfactory, but there’s no denying that they work. I’ve come to grips with this, and now I tell any designer I work with: let tabs be tabs.
Apple’s interface stumbles aside, instant messaging is far from perfect. There are at least a couple of tweaks on my wish list for the ideal instant messaging product. Here are two of them:
During just about every instant messaging chat, I accidentally hit the Return key while reaching for the apostrophe key on my keyboard, often as many as three or four times before the chat is over. The result is that I’m constantly sending messages with just one or two characters, like “I” and “We,” when I mean to send “I’m” and “We’re,” to cite two examples.
This seems profoundly unnecessary; an enterprising iChat or Adium programmer could just as easily require a minimum of three typed characters before allowing the Return key to actually send a message. So that if I accidentally hit that Return key while typing a contraction, the program will prevent the errant message from transmitting — thereby cutting down the vast majority of my errant chatting. And in instances wherein users really need to make their point with just a single character — like when the occasion calls for just an exclamation point — this minimum requirement is easily worked around by typing two trailing spaces. Everybody wins.
The nature of instant messaging is such that, even between two people, users often run multiple conversations or threads simultaneously, tripping over one another’s questions and confusing the flow of the conversation. Often, in the midst of typing an answer, I’ll have to cut my text and save it to the clipboard in order to reply to a more immediate question. The problem is that if I’m engaged in other chats at the same time, or if I’m doing work in other programs that also call for the clipboard, then I can easily lose that text I had intended to cache until later.
Of course, this might be solved by a system-wide service that allows for multiple, simultaneous clipboards. Failing that, the incorporation of a clipboard — or even a simple scratch area — for each conversation would be ideal. This could be manifested as an additional, retractable pane, or it could be invoked with a key combination, much as pushing the Up Arrow button will recall the last bit of text a user messaged in an Adium chat.
There, those are my two big requests for instant messaging. You’ll notice one thing that’s not on my list, though, and that’s any kind of enhancement to current video chatting features. I just don’t use video chatting. However, I do fully accept that one day we’ll have as many video chats as we do, say, telephone calls today, but I just can’t believe that number will ever approach the amount of text-based messaging we do. Even when we see the third or fourth generation of Internet users roaming the Earth and making us all feel ancient, I still believe that text will be a more comfortable medium than video.