The Tower of Babble

Between September 2005 and July 2011 I was a regular contributor to MacFormat in the UK.

Whereas I’m posting the published articles for my MacWarehouse writing, with the MacFormat ones I’ve decided to post the text as submitted, including any comments that I included for design. I am, however, allowing myself a few small edits for clarity.

The particular one is my fifteenth column, written in November 2006. This is presented purely as a historical record as much, if not all, of the information contained in it may well have changed in the meantime.

“much, if not all, of the information contained in it may well have changed in the meantime” – something that I say with every one of these archive posts but this one seems to have dated a lot more than some of the others.

When this was written Facebook had only been open for public access for about a month and, today, I would venture that Facebook’s Messenger & WhatsApp, plus iMessage and WeChat account for the majority of the messaging in use on the internet today; though most of it isn’t the sort of real-time chatting that was in my mind when I wrote this. None of those services existed at the time of writing.

The Tower of Babble


Babble – noun – the sound of people talking quickly and in a way that is impossible to understand.

For a Mac user wanting to use instant messaging there is a wide variety of, often confusing, choices. Things get even worse if you want to do more than basic IM and include things like video chat or making phone calls with your IM client.

OS X comes with iChat so it is probably the default option for most Mac users. iChat supports both AOL’s Oscar protocol and the open source Jabber protocol. As such if you use iChat you can chat with users of AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ, both of which support Oscar, and Google Talk, which uses Jabber. If you want to do video chat you are restricted to other iChat users or AIM users who run Windows XP. There is a hack that leverages Jabber to allow you to chat with Yahoo Instant Messenger or Microsoft MSN users, if you are interested have a look at ( now a dead link ) .

MSN has long been a sandbox and would only talk to other users of MSN. Regulatory pressure is changing that and the latest version for the Mac, now know as Microsoft Messenger, will communicate with Yahoo and if you have a Microsoft Live Communications Server will also talk to AIM. If you want to user Microsoft Messenger for video chat you will have to stick to Windows if you use the official client as Microsoft don’t support it on the Mac. Alternatively an open source project called Mercury ( ) is working on creating a Mac client that can do video chat but it is still in beta and the chat has to be started by a Windows user.

Yahoo Instant Messenger used to only talk to other YIM users but can now also talk to Microsoft Messenger. One of the main reasons to use YIM is that you can do video chat between Macs and PCs quite easily and if this is the main thing that you want a chat client for then it is a good choice. Apart from that there isn’t a great deal to differentiate it from any other IM service.

AOL offers two IM clients, AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ. These were originally from two separate companies but AOL bought Mirabilis, ICQ’s developer, in 1998. For much of the past 8 years they have operated as essentially two separate IM services although they have been able to communicate with each other since 2000. For some time Microsoft tried to get MSN to talk to AIM by writing their own code, independently of AOL, but every time Microsoft released a patch AOL would counter with changes to their servers which blocked MSN. This seems to have subsided for now and as of today both AIM and ICQ can only talk to themselves and iChat. The Mac clients for AOL or ICQ don’t support video but as above AIM users on Windows XP can video chat with iCaht.

Google have now released their own IM service called Google Talk but they only produce client software for the PC. This is not too much of an issue for Mac users though as Google use the open source Jabber protocol which is supported by iChat.

Skype is the poster child for VoIP (voice over internet protocol) and is the best choice if you want to be able to either make calls to regular phones or have a phone number that people can contact you on anywhere in the world. Whilst AIM, ICQ, YIM and MSN all support calling out to phones this feature is limited to the Windows version. The latest beta version for the Mac now supports video calling and Skype also works as a standard, text based, IM application but Skype only talks to Skype.

There is no perfect IM application that does everything. It is quite possible that you will need more than one to tick all of your boxes. There are a few, third party, applications that will connect to more than one service but these do not support all of their features and none of them support Skype. Have a look at the following, Fire ( ), Adium ( ) and Proteus ( now a dead link ) all of which will allow you to chat with people using different services all within the one application.


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