Here is a(n unfinished) recipe for a modern chat server using XMPP (which you may recall I like). It needs polishing but I’m publishing it right now to make sure it can start being useful to anyone who needs it. I hope there are no glaring security mistakes, please let me know if you see any.
We will be able to get our messages on all connected devices at the same time, share pictures, audio clips and files simply and instantly, retrieve more chat history from the server and, once we go down in the metro and lose connectivity, get our messages when we regain access to the Internet.
I like Jabber¹. It’s simple. It works.
I can use to chat from my home computer, from my office computer, from my phone. Or all three at once.
I can use to chat privately by adding some end-to-end encryption (such as OTR).
I’ve used to call a friend when he was in Africa.
I use it to chat with my mum. Privately too.
I use it to chat with my friends.
Correction, I used to be able to use it to chat with my friends.
Lately, I don’t see some of them online anymore. Including some long distance friends with whom it has become an important way of staying in contact.
See, it may come as a surprise to you, but most of my friends aren’t übergeeks. In fact, most of them aren’t geeks at all.
They just use what everyone uses. And what everyone uses these days is Google, and thus Gmail.
So they have a Jabber account, which they call a Gtalk account.
I’ve tried telling them their Gtalk account is really a Jabber account, in the same way their their Gmail account is really an email account. Most of the time it didn’t stick but hey, what the hell, at least we could chat.
Now Google has decided to move all their users away from Jabber and towards Hangouts, their new instant messaging platform.
Now before we go any further, of course I understand the need for Google to clean up their multiple instant messaging apps. Of course I understand that most Gtalk users only have Gtalk users in their contact lists. And from what I understand, you can still log in to your Gtalk account, as the Gtalk service is being maintained for the foreseeable future, whatever that means.
But while, Google is selling this a an upgrade they are passing over the fact that Hangouts is really only compatible with Hangouts, and nothing else.
As if users’ Gmail accounts could only send email to other Gmail accounts.
So now, more and more of friends aren’t showing up online anymore because they’ve been switched to Hangouts, usually without realising so. And most of them will probably wonder why am never online anymore, not realising they have moved to a different network.
After all, everything looks the same right? Just a little shinier and more “modern”.
Of course, a perfect solution would be to explain the situation to them.
Create an account for them on my jabber server (or on anotherserver or even help them set up their own, it’s reallynot that hard), even enable them to point their own domain name at my server, and let them have a cool email@example.com address.
It’s simple, all they’d have to do on their end is download Xabber on Android or ChatSecure if –heavens forbid– they’re on iOS², enter their login and password and be on their merry way.
But the truth of the matter is: that would already be too much of an inconvenience.
Most people agree on an intellectual level that independence is important. But once you hit the practicalities, a surprising (and disappointing) amount of people will throw their arms in the air and explain how all they want is to chat, not go into all this complex stuff.
Most people would also agree, especially in these post-PRISM-revelations days, that protecting your privacy is important.
But how many are willing to actually take a look at their online habits and change them?
I may sound bitter, and that’s because I am in part, but I am really more disappointed than anything else I guess.
At the end of the day, I wish I could just create an account for all my friends, have them realise the danger of putting all your eggs in the same basket and all your online life with the same provider and keep chatting as we do now, but to get the same usefulness out of that Jabber account they’d still have to convince all their friends to do the same, who’d have to convince all their friends to do the same, etc.
All of this compared to “but it already just works”.
Sure, it’s possible, but it’s an uphill battle.
And the best part (or the worse) is that it has already happened.
Remember 10-15 years ago. IM was ruled by ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! messenger, MSN messenger.
None of which could talk to any of the others.
Users were siloed.
But users were not (and are not) stupid, so they created accounts on each service. Then they started using clients that could run all services at once.
Ahh, those were the good old days of Trillian and then Miranda and gAIM.
In the end, a better service, or in fact a better protocol emerged: Jabber.
Legacy services even ended up trying to run on Jabber at one point or another and finally huge players based their entire instant messaging offering on Jabber: Google with Gtalk, Facebook with Facebook chat.
This made this services technically compatible with any other server running Jabber (in the same way firstname.lastname@example.org can send and receive mail to and from email@example.com). And most of the time it made the services actually interoperable (if the service did it right and didn’t close off connections to the rest of the Jaber network in order to be an island on their own… looking at you Facebook chat).
In plain words : I can run my server and chat with anyone connected to a Jabber server as long as I’m on their contact list.
Fast forward to now, and having been through a period of interoperability, we are back to silos: Skype, Facebook Chat, iMessage, WhatsApp and… Hangouts.
None of which can talk to each other.
And this is what really annoys me. We were pretty much done with this silly issue and now we’re back to the same problem.
That and the fact I simply won’t be able to chat my friends, unless they decide to switch back to Jabber (hard), to run a Jabber account on the side just for me (some might be nice enough to indulge me, but for how long?) or I accept to open a Hangouts account.