The integration of instant messaging into popular online services like Facebook and Gmail has reduced the need for an IM client, but hasn’t eliminated it completely. Such integrated services are much more limited, after all, and they also piggy-back on another platform, a fact that some users find inconvenient.
Fortunately, dedicated cross-platform chat clients still exist; indeed, they seem to be thriving in spite of attempts by large companies to move into this space. Here are five chat clients that work on both Windows and Mac and can be used to message friends across a variety of platforms and protocols.
If these clients were patrons at a bar, Trillian would be a grizzled, gray-bearded Vietnam vet nursing a Bourbon. Now closing in on its 14th birthday, Trillian paved the way for future cross-platform, cross-protocol clients and remains a popular option among users who need a powerful, versatile messenger.
There’s a lot to like about Trillian. The client works on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and, in 2010, added support for Android, iOS and Blackberry. A free, ad-supported version is available alongside a Pro $20/year (or $60 one-time) version that includes cloud history, tabbed chats and email integration. And there’s even a business version for enterprise intranets, sold at $2/per user, per month, which supports advanced local networking and security features.
Every popular messenger service can be used through the client including not just the usual suspects, like Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! and ICQ, but also Facebook, MySpace and Skype. A broad range of localization features, themes, emoticons and other features make it possible to extensively customize Trillian, but the basic software remains intuitive. Overall, this is a great choice for all your IM needs; the app’s high price is its only notable downside.
Pidgin is an open-source, multi-platform client, and the ying to Trillian’s yang. Unlike its sprawling, commercial competitor, Pidgin keeps things simple, but still offers access to a large number of protocols.
Those services include AIM, IRC, MSN, ICQ, Yahoo! along with MySpaceIM, Facebook and Google Talk, plus some lesser-known protcols like Sametime, Gadu-Gadu, SIMPLE and more. The client works on Windows and Linux. A similar client based off the same core code, called Adium, exists for OS X.
While great for chat, Pidgin does suffer from a relatively slim feature set. Many features found in Trillian, like cloud history, encrypted IM and the wide selection of themes and emoticons, simply aren’t available. The developers have also chosen to store account passwords in plaintext, a controversial decision.
Still, Pidgin (or Adium, for OS X users) is a good pick for anyone who wants a simple, functional multi-client messenger that focuses on chat.
Another fully-free alternative, Digsby is an open-source IM client for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux (though it wasn’t open originally; it went open in 2012). The client, to describe it in one word, is traditional. The old-school interface is designed for use as a toolbar on the left or right of your display and doesn’t distract users with a multitude of options and excessive notifications.
Speaking of connections, Digsby has most of what you’d expect but sticks to the big names. There’s no Gadu-Gadu, no Skype, and even IRC is not supported. Whether the simple selection matters to you will, of course, depend on what services you use. POP3 and IMAP email remain a part of the package, at least.
As for features, well – there aren’t many. Digsby is an instant messenger, and it does typical IM things. This includes messaging notifications, notifications through email and an optional widget, and some skin customization options. There is not, however, any particular feature that makes this client stand out. This is a good choice for folks who like a simple, purpose-built app, but it lacks the advanced features that power users demand.
If you’d like your instant messenger to place a priority on video chat, Jitsi may be just what you need. This free, open-source client works on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
While most clients now offer video chat, Jitsi focuses on it, which means it has a beefy list of features; conference calls, call transfer, auto answer/forward, call recording, and much more. Jitsi supports the SIP protocol, which means it can be used to call others using VOIP programs with SIP support. This includes Skype users who pay for Skype Connect.
Jitsi also works as an instant messaging client and supports the usual protocols like AIM, ICQ, MSN/Windows Live, Facebook, Google Talk and more. Noticeably absent choices include IRC and MySpace. We also found the interface to be a bit drab, though it does the job. Overall, this is a great all-in-one solution for folks who’d like to replace Skype with an open-source alternative.
This app spans Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Nokia phones, Java-based phones and the Kindle Fire, making Nimbuzz a frontrunner for anyone who wants to use the same messenger at home and on the road, or if you have an older phone that doesn’t run iOS, Android or Blackberry.
Unlike the other apps, Nimbuzz abandons older chat protocols and focuses only on Facebook and Google talk. Both work well, but that’s all there is; no AIM, ICQ and etc. There’s allegedly still support for Yahoo! and Windows Live Messenger, but we could never find a way to connect to those networks. VOIP with video is supported, too, over the SIP protocol.
Though Nimbuzz provides an attractive interface and a lot of functionality, including numerous “Buddy” plugins that let users search websites, meet strangers and find jokes through the client, the app is saddled is ad-supported and burdened with an odd monetization scheme. Rather than selling a full version, the developer sells a variety of paid extras including avatars and virtual “gifts,” which are as lame as they sound. Users who hate ad-supported software will not get along with this app.
These five choices cover a range of operating systems, protocols and platforms, as well as a broad range of price. Our personal favorites are Trillian and Pidgin, which cover the paid and free arenas nicely, but the other alternatives are also worth checking out. They’re free after all, and you don’t have to spend anything more than a few minutes to download and install them.