Instant Messaging For Linux

As we approach the real turn of the millennium in the year 2001 (that's right people, after all that Y2K hullabaloo, we're still in the 20th century!), I can't stop thinking about Stanley Kubrick's movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Arthur C. Clarke's classic sci-fi novel. If you have never seen it, then by all means, drop this magazine, go out and rent it now -- you're depriving yourself of seeing probably the best sci-fi film ever made. Go right now. Watch it. Make popcorn. And don't skip the slow-moving monkey part -- it's important.

A Whole New Ball-GAIM: Linux users who want to use AOL Instant Messenger can use this GNOME client.

As we approach the real turn of the millennium in the year 2001 (that’s right people, after all that Y2K hullabaloo, we’re still in the 20th century!), I can’t stop thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic sci-fi novel. If you have never seen it, then by all means, drop this magazine, go out and rent it now — you’re depriving yourself of seeing probably the best sci-fi film ever made. Go right now. Watch it. Make popcorn. And don’t skip the slow-moving monkey part — it’s important.

What a great flick, right? Granted, there are a great deal of technologies and advancements that were predicted in Kubrick’s movie (originally released in 1968, as if you couldn’t tell by the beehive hairdos) that obviously have not come to fruition yet, such as manned interplanetary space travel, a permanent moon base, true artificial intelligence, and of course, the videophone (as depicted in that famous scene where space scientist Dr. Floyd calls his young daughter on her birthday from a space station orbiting earth).

2001: An Instant Messaging Odyssey

Surprisingly, what 2001: A Space Odyssey could not predict was the rise of the information revolution and the Internet. In 1968, we were in the middle of a huge space race with the Russians to send a man to the moon. We were more concerned with building nuclear weapons and fighting a cold war against communism than we were with the spread of information. If he was making the movie today, I think Kubrick would have had Dr. Floyd fire up his laptop and contact his daughter via chat using high-speed wireless Internet. Audiences of 1968 were impressed with videophones and a base on the moon. Would they have been as impressed with a housebound society that bought everything it wanted over the Web? I don’t know. At least they’d be happy to know our computers aren’t psychotic.

While some of the aforementioned future advancements haven’t yet come to fruition, some have. For example, everyone could have had videophones years ago. So how come nobody has them (except for the yuppie freaks that bought them from the Sharper Image a few years back)? Well for starters, most people don’t like being caught off guard wearing their jockey shorts — I certainly don’t. As it stands, two-way video communication seems to be reserved for teleconferencing, where groups of people from afar meet under controlled circumstances. In most respects however, people want their privacy. But if you absolutely have to contact somebody instantaneously, and e-mail just doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing you have somebody captive for a few minutes, nothing beats Instant Messaging (IM) — and you can safely do it in your jockey shorts.

Before my editor gets royally pissed with me for writing the remainder of my column about something completely unrelated to Linux, I have to tell you that IM isn’t just for Windows; there’s a whole world of messaging clients waiting for you to try out. So, let’s get rolling.

AIM Clients

Ahhh…the sweet smell of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Yes, we know how much fear and loathing AOL inspires in most hard-core computer hobbyists; but lets face it, AIM is the de facto standard for communicating with the unwashed masses, which probably include your mom, brother- in-law, and girlfriend — all of whom couldn’t care less what weirdo operating system you are using.

AIM uses the tik/tok protocol, which was previously proprietary to AOL’s Windows AIM client and internal servers but has been recently opened up for use by other parties — which is why we can now enjoy using it on Linux. GAIM, which is a GTK application, is included with Helix Gnome (http://www.helixcode.com), which we’ve been waxing rhapsodic about in the last several OTD columns. You can also get it from the official GAIM home-page (http://www.marko.net/gaim) in both source and pre-compiled RPM packages.

GAIM won second place for Best Collaborative Tool in this year’s Linux Magazine “Tuxie” awards, and for a damn good reason — it’s a very well built application and is in many ways superior to its Windows counterpart. Better yet, there are no annoying advertisements to put up with.

At the time of this writing, AOL was developing its own version of AIM for Linux. It just so happens that AOL’s upcoming AOLTV Internet appliance will run on an embedded version of Linux (yes, your mom might be running Linux soon — scared yet?). You can get it at http://www.aol.com/aim/Linuxbeta.html. However, we feel that GAIM is actually a much more developed product at this time. To use either GAIM or the official AIM for Linux beta, you’ll need to sign up and create an account at the AIM homepage (http://www.aol.com/aim). Don’t worry, it’s free.

For those of you who prefer KDE to Gnome, KAIM is a new AIM client under development for KDE, and you can get it from its Web site at http://sourceforge.net/projects/kaim/. KAIM is currently in an early alpha release, so keep the bug spray handy.

ICQ Clients

A Step Above AIM: Linux users more familiar with ICQ will feel more comfortable with the GNOMEICU client.

For the rest of the world, there’s ICQ, which has the distinction of being the most mature instant messaging network in use today, although it is probably slowly being phased out by AIM. This is kind of unfortunate, considering that ICQ has a lot of nice features that AOL IM doesn’t have, such as guaranteed message delivery and a more sophisticated multi-user chat facility. ICQ also has lots of mini-communities on diverse subjects, so if you just want to one-on-one or multi-user chat with some liked-minded “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Star Trek” fans, it’s easy to find people to talk to; for more info, just surf on over to the ICQ homepage at http://www.icq.com.

There are no fewer than a dozen ICQ clients for Linux; just go to http://www.freshmeat.net and search for “ICQ.” GNOMEICU, also included with Helix GNOME (becoming a bit repetitive, isn’t it?), is probably the most sophisticated and actively developed of all of the choices; you can find it at http://gnomeicu.sourceforge.net.


No Jabberwocky: Gabber, which uses GTK and runs on GNOME, is probably the best Jabber client for Linux.

Jabber is the new kid on the instant messaging block and is already making great strides in the open source community. With a great deal of built-in support for future functionality improvements through the use of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) technology, Jabber has all the ingredients to become the most desirable IM network of the future. And just because it’s the new kid doesn’t mean it can’t make friends with the others; Jabber. com provides a gateway service to AIM and ICQ, so you don’t have to be isolated from the rest of the world. As an added bonus, if you want to participate on the other networks, you only need the Jabber client.

Right now, the Jabber client with the most development for Linux is Gabber, which, you guessed it, uses GTK and runs in GNOME. Like everything else for Linux, Gabber is very much a work in progress, and thus might not install on your system easily. At the time of this writing, Gabber had several dependencies on various library modules that aren’t installed by default on most distributions, namely the following:


You’ll need to download and install all of these before installing (or compiling from source) the Gabber RPM. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we (and the Gabber developers) strongly suggest you download and install Helix GNOME before installing Gabber and any of these libraries.

Gabber and the libraries it depends on can be downloaded from the Gabber homepage at http://gabber.sourceforge.net.


On the Desktop/ XChat
Relaying Information: Fans of IRC can use Xchat, a very good IRC client for Linux that runs in GNOME.

The granddaddy of all Internet chat systems, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), is still very much alive and well on the Net; it’s also one of the hottest places to get up close and personal with the Linux and open source community. While not really an instant messaging system by modern definition, IRC is composed of dozens of networks of disperse servers around the Internet that are interconnected by the aging IRC protocol. IRC networks are divided into thousands of chat channels that focus on all sorts of subjects. Channels can be populated by tens of thousands of people, from all around the world, at any given time. Keep in mind that some of these IRC networks (like EFNet) are at peak capacity 24 hours a day, so you might have trouble logging on to some of the servers and you might get bounced or split off the network for no apparent reason. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s what makes IRC what it is.

To get onto IRC, you’ll need an IRC client. Chances are you’ve already got one installed on your system; the most user-friendly and feature-rich one is probably Xchat (http://www.xchat.org), which runs in GNOME. KDE users will want to take a look at KSIRC (which is included with KDE), and those who are more text-inclined will want to look at either BitchX or IRCII. Of primary interest to Linux users are the OpenProjects.net and UnderNet IRC networks, which contain many chat channels dedicated to Linux and the various distributions, as well as dozens of open source projects like GNOME and KDE. Generally speaking, the users on these channels are very friendly and helpful, but try to be patient, as there can be many discussions going on.

One of the more common mistakes IRC newbies make is to flood channels with the same question or request. They then find themselves getting banned or kicked off that channel. It’s best to lurk and watch the goings-on of a particular channel for a few minutes before you start flapping your mouth off.

While IRC can be an indispensable tool and a great way to meet people and interact with the Linux community, it’s also a seedy place rife with software pirates, stalkers, child pornographers, “script kiddies,” and Yanni fans. To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi — there has never been a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. There’s a lot of colorful language spoken here, and from time to time (depending on the IRC exploit of the week), it also becomes one of the more popular ways to get hacked. Be on guard (as if you were walking down 42nd Street in New York City in the Pre- Disney/Guiliani era). Never, ever start an IRC client as root or a user with root equivalency; you’re just asking for trouble.

A good place to get information on IRC and IRC etiquette is the http://www.irchelp.org Web site. The site contains many FAQs, as well as data on the different networks, instructions for getting onto them, and suggestions for how to stay out of trouble.

Failed Predictions

After checking out all these hi-tech communication tools, I bet you’re thinking, “OK, that’s all great, but none of this stuff is quite as cool as calling Earth from a commuter rocket on its way to the moon.” Yeah, that’s true, but hey — it’s a start. And for what it’s worth, Kubrick named the computer in his movie after IBM, not Microsoft. I guess he couldn’t have predicted everything…

Jason Perlow is a freelance writer and systems integrator. He can be reached at perlow@linux-mag.com.

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