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In the deep blue ocean of multi-protocol instant messaging clients swims/flies a new fish/bird: Instantbird. What's that you ask? It's what you get when you splice an IM client with Firefox. On  October 18th, 2007 Instantbird 0.1 was born. It had about 1,600 downloads on the first day and about 80,000 downloads within the first month of availability. Version 0.3 came out in February 2011 and by the end of June Instantbird matured to a full 1.0 release with 11 locales.

After the break read about a rather fresh new take on Instant Messaging. I will be doing a thorough analysis on this relatively new Mozilla powered messaging client which doesn't promise to compete but rather offer users an alternative.    

Installation and Setup

Instantbird is a cross-platform open source client (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux) that also comes in a portable app version for Windows. Installation and setup is simple and straightforward. One major plus for Instantbird is obvious from the get-go: the ability to setup proxy connectivity when you add your first account. I’ll let the screen-caps do all the talking.
Customizability, Features and Behavior

Instantbird offers a plethora of options and settings for you to configure. If you’re familiar with Firefox’s Options window you’ll feel right at home with Instantbird’s. If you're feeling lucky, there's even the about:config window where you can tweak every nook and cranny. A pleasant feature to have, common to many other multi-protocol clients is also found in Instantbird: the possibility to group several contacts under one alias in your contact list. Instead of groups there are tags which allow for a particular contact to be in tagged several times. A neat gimmick most users overlook is the magic copy functionality which properly formats text Copy-Pasted from a chat window by properly displaying timestamps, contact name and written lines.

Feature wise this tiny client isn’t much to write home about. It offers chat support for a wide range of protocols but that’s about it. There is no File Transfer support to speak of, not to mention Video or Voice chat. Logging is minimal: for each account logs are kept in plain .txt format with date file name within a folder for each of your contacts. No search is provided yet for chat logs. Frustratingly odd is the lack of an "Invisible" option as a Status.
Though it lacks features some clients come out-of-the-box with Instantbird inherits Mozilla’s extendability with Add-ons. Another familiar interface are the Add-on manager and even the add-on website. While not crowded with useful extensions do expect more features to be added via add-ons if/when popularity for the software rises. Add-ons give it flexibility and adaptability like no other IM client before it: Pidgin and Miranda, eat your heart out! Unlike the previously two mentioned, you needn't roam the web for add-ons: you can search and install right from the Add-on Manager. I consider this a very important feature if Instantbird is ever to win the hearts of non-technical users.

A downside to Mozilla's legacy is the required restart after each add-on installation. Just take a deep breath in and think about how all your patience will be worth it after you set it up just the way you like it (but will you ever get there?).

According to the official Wiki page the roadmap for Instantbird includes the following:
  • improved logs; easy to search
  • file transfers
  • configurable notifications for contact events
  • rich text in outgoing messages (send HTML in outgoing messages)
  • easy migration from other IM clients with an import wizard
  • video/voice

GUI and Eye-candy

Pidgin for example is built on the GTK+ user interface which is native on some Linux desktop operating systems (typically those based on Gnome or XFCE). Instantbird's XUL user interface also acts native on Windows and Mac OS X where GTK may not fit as well. Therefore, cross-platform GUI integration is a definite plus for Instantbird.

Despite being a new player in terms of beautification Instantbird isn't too shabby. It offers a wide range of customizability in the areas of: Themes, Message Styles, Variants, Emoticons. Themes are skins that apply to every window of the application. Search the Add-ons site and you might stumble upon your favorite Firefox themes. Message Styles are skins that apply to conversation windows which have Variants as color schemes. Yahoo smileys are not available by default and it seems that the ones found on the Add-ons page brake compatibility after version 0.2. But if Yahoo’s aren't your favorite then it won’t be an issue, since other emoticon packs are freely available on the Add-ons website.

Hovering over the contacts list does show extra information but if you were hoping for a list view that would show your contact’s avatars you're out of luck. Generally speaking, the contacts list comes with close to no customizability out-of-the-box and this geek has yet to find any add-ons that would aid my cause in this manner.
Performance

The Mozilla platform has the reputation of using more resources than other browsers/toolkits. On Windows, with one chat windows open and a populated contacts list a vanilla Instantbird takes up around 34mb of memory(your results may differ). It’s an acceptable result and the developers promise to improve on this. The portable app version weighs in at just over 30mb of disk space which is rather tiny. The application starts up fast and quickly connects to your favorite communication service. No hangs have been noticed while testing and Instantbird performs well overall.

Conclusion

While not a game changer Instantbird delivers basic IM functionality. It's a decent light weight client that you should keep an eye out for. It elegantly integrates with the major OSes and is built up on the Mozilla code base but is not in any way endorsed by the eponymous organization nor officially associated with it. The portable version easily fits on flash drive for you to carry around and use anywhere you like. It's recently reached version 1.0 and development is constant. It's strengths are customization and looks while offering power-users a wide range of settings to tweak. 

Category: Cross-Platform Multi-Protocol IM
Website: www.instantbird.com
License: GNU GPL 2.0
OS: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux
Portable version: Available @ PortableApps

 


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