The “push” feature incorporated into iPhone OS 3.0 finally makes true instant messaging (IM) possible on the iPhone. There are several IM solutions currently available, and I recommend the following commercial apps: BeejiveIM ($9.99; beejive.com), Agile Messenger ($9.99; agilemobile.com/iphone.html), and IM+ ($4.99; shapeservices.com). Each has its own strengths and weaknesses; features found in one are not always present in the others. eBuddy (ebuddy.com) and a few other free IM apps (e.g., Fring and Nimbuzz) support push, but most of these apps are pretty barebones.
In this article, I only discuss apps meant to work on traditional IM networks (ICQ, MSN, AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo). I do not look at Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or chat room solutions, and I don’t discuss Twitter or Facebook clients, even though some of these apps support chatting over their networks.
BeejiveIM lets you receive incoming file transfers via instant messaging (top-left and right). Once received, you can view, watch, listen to the file, or forward it to a friend (left).
The features you want
Support for push messaging
As mentioned, the IM app you choose should support push messaging. This feature “pushes” incoming messages to your mobile device as they are received by your server. Without it, instant messaging isn’t very “instant!” The commercial apps mentioned support it, as do the free apps eBuddy, Fring and Nimbuzz. With push, you receive messages as they are sent, even if your IM app isn’t open.
Saving and sending chat logs
Just like the desktop MSN client, BeejiveIM and some other applications allow for the mailing of chat logs. This is a great feature if you want to archive your past chats.
Copying and pasting text
With the release of OS 3.0, the iPhone now has cut, copy, & paste capability. This can come in handy when you want to copy a URL or block of text from a message to a note. Unfortunately, only a few IM apps support this feature, including Agile and BeejiveIM.
Hot Web links
When you see a Web link that interests you, you may want to tap on it immediately to open the site in Safari. Most of the commercial IM apps let you do this (e.g., IM+, Agile Messenger and BeejiveIM); many of the less expensive and free apps don’t (e.g., Fring, Nimbuzz, and Palringo).
The ability to chat on an iPhone when the screen is in landscape viewing mode is beneficial because the keyboard is bigger and easier to use. The best commercial and some of the free apps support this feature (e.g., IM+, Agile Messenger, BeejiveIM, and Nimbuzz), but most of the free applications (e.g., Fring and eBuddy) do not.
File transfer support
Currently, BeejiveIM is the only IM app that offers native file transfer support, allowing you to receive, review, watch, or listen to any file. It’s true that you can do this via e-mail, but most accounts have file size and type restrictions. These don’t apply to IM solutions. In addition, IM uses binary transfer, which reduces the file size and speeds up the process. An example will help clarify how this works.
Say a friend using a desktop Mac or PC sends you an MP3 file attached to an instant message. BeejiveIM would display an “Incoming File” message and ask you to “Accept” the file transfer or “Cancel” (reject) it. The status of the download is displayed on BeejiveIM’s screen while you continue to chat. Once the file has finished downloading, you tap on the message to display its “Info” screen. From here, you can tap on the right arrow symbol next to the file name to play the MP3, or hit the “Forward” button to send it to a friend via e-mail or IM.
The ability to send files from the iPhone, however, is limited. BeejiveIM can only send voice recordings and photos.
Say you want to send a friend a map showing him where to meet you for lunch. You can do this with e-mail, but if you’re both on foot with mobile devices, it may be easier to IM.
Currently, IM+ is the only app that lets you easily send instant message location information from your iPhone. It works on the 3G and 3GS using their integrated GPS capability to pinpoint your current location. It also works on the original iPhone, using the less-exact method of using cell towers and nearby Wi-Fi hotspots to determine your location.
Agile Messenger and a few other IM apps let you join in conference chats—chats with more than two participants.
Voice over IP (VoIP)
Some IM apps also support “Voice over Internet Protocol” (VoIP) calls by connecting to Google Talk, Skype, and MSN clients. As of mid-August, none of them supported push, but this may change in the near future.
Currently, only two IM apps support VoIP: Nimbuzz (Free; nimbuzz.com/en) and Fring (Free; fring.com). Neither of these is particularly capable at text messaging, so you may want to rely on another app for that. Here are a couple other things to keep in mind:
Microsoft recently released Version 2009 of their Windows Live Messenger. Unfortunately, none of the current VoIP-enabled apps support it. You can only use these apps with Windows Live Messenger 8.5 or earlier versions.
You cannot conduct VoIP calls over a cellular data connection—you must be connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi.
An online feature-by-feature comparison
Because IM apps continuously evolve, a full, feature-by-feature comparison would be out of date before this issue hit the newsstands. If you want a detailed and current description of these apps, take a look at my roundup which is continually updated. To find it, go to the iPhone Life blogs (iphonelife.com/blog) and do a search on “Instant Messenger roundup.”