Instant messaging clients and web browsers are probably the most used programs on any of my computers. The problem with IM clients is... well... none are perfect. I've tried several: Trillian (ugly, bad GUI, buggy), Google talk (ugly, no group convos), Pidgin (can't get it running. This post was inspired by a review of Pidgin on a blog I follow.) and Windows Live AKA MSN. None of them meet my requirements. My requirements are fairly simple, although it looks lengthly:
- Add, remove and block contacts
- "Appear offline" functionality - for everyone or only to individuals
- Choose whether people who aren't a contact can message you
- Allow transfers of any filetype
- Clickable links in chat open a new tab or browser window
- Change nicknames/status of yourself
- Change the display name of people on your contact list
- Conference/ group chats
- Group contacts and send a message to the whole group at once
- Use multiple chat protocols
- Send messages to offline contacts who will receive it when they sign in
- "Toast"/ popups when contacts come online (configurable for other events)
- Change chimes and noises for specific events
- Easy to install, modify and export emoticon packs
- Change personal font
- Be able to override a contact's font
- Ability to italicize or bold text in a conversation
- Have avatar pictures
- Main window consists only of the contact list and a few menu buttons - no ads or gimmicks
- Change the color of the main window
- Change the background and color of the chat windows and have it persist
- The color of a contact's chat window is the color of their toast
Surprisingly, MSN version 8.5 meets many of these criteria. Some of the key ones that have bothered me are: it's missing is the ability to send all filetypes, ability to appear offline to only one or some users, and emoticon packs are hard to install, create, modify and export. Overall, though, I was happy with it.
Not too long ago, MSN forced all users to update to version 2009 (AKA version 14) because of a security risk. If you didn't update you could no longer use the service. So I updated - and I really, really disliked it. For one, you could no longer change the background of windows - instead it relayed on "personas" or themes that the contact chose for themselves. In theory this achieved the same effect - you could, at a glance, tell who you were talking to by the theme of the window. However, about half my contacts don't use MSN but rather use another client which can talk to MSN... so they don't have personas and I had no way to set the background of their windows. This was enough to piss me off and go in search of how to get the old MSN back.
It turns out that you can still find a few 8.5 installers online, so I got a hold of one. The first thing I do with a fresh MSN install is run A Patch on it to clean up the GUI and get rid of the ads and clutter they like to add. On the left is what my main window looks like when using version 8.5 and after running A Patch for MSN 8.5. Below is what my chat windows looks like - complete with hand-picked backgrounds.
The, uh, "hack" to get an older version of MSN working is easy: Before you ever run it, right after an install (and after running A Patch if you're going to do that) set the executable to run in compatibility mode. On my XP machine, the path is C: -> Program Files -> windows live -> Messenger -> msnmsgr.exe. Right click msnmsgr.exe and goto properties -> Compatibility (tab) and put a check next to "Run this program in compatibility mode for" and pick anything from the drop down. On my XP machine it's Windows 2000. You will no longer be prompted to update when you run MSN.
This is only a temporary fix for me. I really shouldn't be doing this because there was a security flaw - there's a reason they forced their users to upgrade. However, it doesn't look like I'll be able to continue using MSN. They just released their newest version and it's... well it's rubbish. They've gone the route of integrating with social networking sites and that's just not my thing. The "compact" view is alright, but someone updating for the first time is greeted with a window that looks like this (via wikimedia):
Keep in mind, this is not a website but is the MSN main window itself. It's starting to look like I'm going to have to write a splinter of an open source IM client myself that I would be happy with, because no one else seems to be making one.