Katherine Boehret

Social-Networking Software Becomes Neighborly

Instant-messaging programs, once the snobby little kids of the online communication world, have had to learn to play well with others.

AOL’s AIM started out with enough popularity to freely ignore the need to integrate with other programs; now, it can be argued that AIM retains its relevancy by operating with other messaging programs like Google‘s Gmail chat and Apple‘s iChat. Other IM clients paired up with one another to increase usability, like when Microsoft and Yahoo became interoperable over two years ago.

But nowadays, social-networking offerings — like leaving messages on Facebook walls and receiving Twitter “tweets” from friends — compete with traditional instant-messaging programs. And advanced technology in mobile devices has helped these chats move from desktops to iPhones and BlackBerrys, where conversations can continue on-the-go, using mobile applications.

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Three free programs — Meebo, Adium and Digsby — work by consolidating numerous messaging accounts into one combined program.

This week I tested three free programs that seem to acknowledge the fading star of isolated instant messaging, as we once knew it. Meebo, Adium and Digsby work by consolidating numerous messaging accounts into one combined program. Some of these include social-networking integration or even built-in email notifications, turning the service into a one-stop shop for online communication. The result can save people from choosing one IM system over another.

All three of these programs are straightforward and work without much effort or instruction. They require users to enter the user names and passwords to log onto each IM account, which may make some people uncomfortable, even though each site explains its privacy policy. Of the three, Digsby offers to integrate with the greatest number of programs all at once, including instant messaging, email and social-networking accounts. It also lets people handle email by deleting or sorting it directly in the IM window, which neither of the other programs does.

But Digsby isn’t yet usable on Macs or Linux, and Adium (the second-best offering) is available only on Macs. When used with the correct operating system, these programs perform as promised, easing communication overall and saving people the hassle of logging into various accounts — or missing out on chats with friends because of not signing into certain programs.

Meebo, www.meebo.com, is the only one of these three products that is completely Web-based. It works on all major browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, and doesn’t require any installation — a plus for those who would like to be using instant messaging in the office but aren’t able to install software on corporate computers. It can log users into one of six messaging programs simultaneously, including Yahoo, Microsoft, AIM, Google, ICQ and Jabber.

I signed onto three instant-messaging accounts at once on Meebo by entering the username and password for each and selecting one overall “Sign In” button, which logged me into each program simultaneously and displayed all of my contacts in one condensed panel. Meebo can be configured to automatically launch within Firefox if a Firefox extension is downloaded.

Meebo.com is also usable on the iPhone and iPod Touch, allowing people to log into multiple accounts simultaneously from their mobile device. As of now, neither Adium nor Digsby has an application that allows it to work with the iPhone or iPod Touch.

Digsby, www.digsby.com, was a cinch to set up on my laptop, which was running Windows Vista. It walked me through the steps of adding accounts from instant-messaging programs, email accounts such as Gmail and Hotmail, and social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Digsby works with IM and emails accounts from AOL/AIM, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google. Jabber, ICQ and Facebook chats also work with Digsby, along with IMAP and POP email accounts.

Once added, all of these accounts are represented in one clean panel. These consolidated communication programs saved me many extra clicks on my computer over a weekend, and I easily chatted with friends while checking messages. New emails received in my Gmail account were visible in a preview panel that popped up when I moved my cursor over the email account name. Right within this email preview panel, I could delete or archive each message; I was also able to mark a message as read or report it as spam. I performed all of these email tasks without opening my Gmail account in a browser or email client. Shortcuts in this preview panel labeled Open, Compose and Inbox sent me to my browser to perform these more-involved tasks.

This in-line functionality also applies to other email accounts, according to Digsby. But though I could see a tally of newly received Hotmail messages in my Digsby preview panel, these messages weren’t as interactive as those received in my Gmail inbox.

Digsby also tracks Twitter alerts and timelines, as well as Facebook newsfeeds and alerts — including posting notifications in your Digsby panel whenever someone “friends” you on Facebook.

Adium, www.adiumx.com, wins points for cuteness. The downloaded program is represented by a goofy, green duck, which plops itself in the Mac operating system dock and closes its eyes when not in use. When new messages are received via Adium, this duck flaps its wings until you open the message. The Adium user interface incorporates sleek visuals, such as status windows that gracefully float above user names whenever a cursor moves over these names.

Adium works with AIM, ICQ, .Mac, Jabber, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. Adium supports new email notifications for some accounts, but doesn’t enable reading or sending email within the program. Instead, it offered to open my account via the browser or using Microsoft Entourage on the Mac. Social networking is limited to MySpace IM on Adium, though the next version will support Facebook Chat.

Adium organizes multiple conversations using tabs stacked at the bottom of a chat window. Icons line the top of each chat window, such as a file icon for transferring files and a lock that switches a conversation to be encrypted and off-the-record. Any conversation that isn’t designated encrypted is automatically stored in a table of Adium transcripts, which can be sorted by To, From or Date. Transcripts can be sorted using rough timelines like “within the past two weeks” or “since yesterday.”

I saved myself time and mouse clicks by using these three consolidation programs, though I preferred Digsby in the end because of its intuitive email integration. These programs will help to take down the instant-messaging barriers that have become turn-offs over the past couple years, and may better integrate IM with the social networks and mobile devices that are on the rise.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Write to the Mossberg Solution at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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