Until this week, instant messaging on the iPhone has been dicey, which was an improvement over “non-existant” when iPhone launched, and “poor” slightly thereafter. The absence of an Apple-developed iChat application created this state of affairs, but third-party developers have attempted to remedy it with their own alternatives, which have ranged from not-so-great to acceptable, but not excellent.
That changed when Meebo, Inc. released the latest iteration of its multi-service (AIM, Yahoo, Google, MSN, ICQ, Jabber) chat client for the iPhone, also called Meebo. As with all other web-based iPhone applications, it can’t compare with the phantom “ideal” Apple-based chat program because part of the screen is virtually always stolen by a URL bar and various Safari icons, but otherwise, Meebo has done an excellent job of simulating an iChat-style interface, and taking into consideration certain limitations (read: one window) that differentiate the iPhone from a PC- or Mac-based chat client. Its main screen lets you see not only your Buddy List, but also previews of the most recent text that’s been typed by your buddies. You also have control over status messages in a large, easy-to-read pull-down menu format.
Individual chat windows are also pretty smart. Messages are timestamped, accompanied by contacts’ real names rather than screen names under certain circumstances*, and a little icon lets you know how much activity’s taking place on your Buddy List when you’re not looking at it. In these images, the red 1 lets you know that some event (say, a message) is waiting to be viewed on the list. Meebo even loads buddies’ icons to display on the iPhone, and generally—not always—does a good job even when messages are being sent to both the iPhone and another computer or device at the same time. We have seen a bug where an old Meebo chat session stays open after a crash, leading to an apparent mis-routing of messages, but we suspect it’ll be fixed. Groups, and closing unwanted ones, could also use some work.
Something that’s simultaneously cool and not cool is Meebo’s PC and Mac web interface for the chat service. It’s cool because Meebo effectively gets around some of the iPhone’s third-party application-specific limitations by having you create an account on its PC/Mac web site, customize certain aspects of your Buddy List (such as status messages and the appearence of screen names) from there, and then transparently access the customizations from the iPhone. That’s really smart. But it’s uncool for a couple of reasons: first, the workaround’s nice, but you shouldn’t have to switch machines or set up a special account to make IM-specific changes. Second, we’ve had mixed results getting some of these details, like contacts’ real names, to appear on the iPhone without entering them manually on the Meebo page. Jesse in Canada saw his Buddy List’s real names transfer properly; I didn’t, and wound up with e-mail addresses and nicknames unless I changed them one-by-one on the Meebo site. Obviously, if this was an Apple program, the Buddy List could reference all of my Contacts and match screen names to real ones; Meebo has done almost as well as it could given Safari’s limitations.
As of now, Meebo is my personal iPhone chat client, supplanting BeeJive’s JiveTalk, and it’ll be interesting to see how Meebo evolves the application over time. I still want a completely iPhone-optimized, Apple-developed AIM client that’s accessible from the main menu and more customizable from the iPhone itself, but if Meebo keeps this up, and Apple doesn’t accommodate other partners’ chat services, this web app will own the multi (MSN, ICQ, Jabber, Yahoo, Google) client chat space on iPhone even if an Apple program is released.