Several weeks went by last December before I told anyone, especially my fellow authors, about the latest book contract I'd signed with Peachpit Press. It's not that I was being ultra-competitive or feared that someone else would steal my idea and get to it before I did. Mostly, I didn't know how they'd react. After all, I was due to write a book - a paper, printed book - about Apple's iChat AV.
That's right. A book. About chat. I wasn't one hundred percent certain I could pull it off, given that iChat appears to be a simple, straightforward program. But once I delved into it more, I realized that Apple performed another one of its sleight-of-hand tricks, packaging a powerful little application into a deceptively simple interface. What once seemed like a program for teens to distract themselves from homework has turned out to be a useful tool for passing quick notes, transferring files, and putting a face to people I know from afar.
I'm surprisingly proud of the book that resulted, iChat AV 2 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide. It was fast and fun to write, interesting to learn how others are using iChat, and amazing to see some of the third-party software that's been released to support iChat. I should also point out that the 120-page book retails for $15, which means you can get it for just over $10 at Amazon.com.
So here are some tips and helpful information about iChat AV collected from the book and based on common questions I've been asked. In an upcoming issue of TidBITS, I'll look at some third-party programs that enhance iChat.
Getting a .Mac Account -- Perhaps the biggest misconception people seem to have about iChat AV is that you need a full-blown paid subscription to Apple's .Mac service. Well, here's a $100 tip: when you sign up for a trial .Mac account at the URL below, you get the full service for 60 days, but you can keep your .Mac name after the trial period expires. Or, if you have an existing AOL account, you can use your AOL screen name without signing up for .Mac at all; AOL screen names are also free, but when given a choice I tend to steer away from AOL.
Chatting with Non-iChat Users -- iChat users aren't limited to communicating with just other iChat users (though I'm sure that would be Apple's preference). iChat uses the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) network, so you can text chat with anyone using an AIM compatible client - including Mac OS 9 and Windows users running AIM. With the recent release of the iChat AV 2.1 beta, you can now correspond via audio or video chats as long as the other person is running AIM 5.5 in Windows.
However, you won't be able to chat in iChat with people using the other major text-messaging network, MSN. A few clients, such as Epicware's Fire or Alien Technology's Proteus, are capable of supporting both networks, but can't cross conversations between the two - you'd still need an MSN account to chat with people who use the MSN network). You can also chat with friends who are on the ICQ network by entering their ICQ number into the Account Name field when you add them to your Buddy List.
Set Up Buddy Actions -- iChat AV includes a number of ways to get your attention, including custom buddy actions. For example, my mother usually hops on her iMac for a short time each day to check email, and she signs in to iChat at the same time. When she logs in and appears in my Buddy List, my Mac says "Mom is online" using Apple's text-to-speech technology. You can also set up custom sounds or make the iChat application icon bounce in the Dock for up to seven different actions.
Click the person's name in the Buddy List (they don't need to be online) and choose Get Info from the Buddies menu, or press Command-Shift-I (Command-I also works). From the Show pop-up menu, choose Actions. Then choose an event from the Event pop-up menu and specify the type of action that will occur. If you want to make it a one-time action, click the checkbox labeled "Perform actions only next time even occurs."
Understanding Buddy Groups -- You can set up buddy groups to help manage your Buddy List, though Apple's implementation of this feature could stand some improvement. Not only is the feature partially hidden, it doesn't necessarily behave the way you'd expect.
First, choose Show Groups from the View menu; a pop-up menu reading "All Groups" appears above the Buddy List, and the Groups drawer slides out from the left side of the window. You can add a new group by clicking the plus-sign (+) icon at the lower left of the drawer, much as you would a new playlist in iTunes or a photo album in iPhoto.
Populating your new group should be as easy as dragging a person's name from the Buddy List to the group name, but that's not the case. By default, all your buddies are added to the group named "Buddies"; but unlike the behavior found in iTunes or iPhoto, dragging a person into a new group actually removes her from Buddies and adds her to the new group. If you later decide to remove her from the new group, she's not only ejected from the group, but she's deleted entirely from your Buddy List! To get around this annoying interface gaffe, Option-drag the buddy's name to the group to copy, not move, the buddy into that group.
One last group tip: If you're not going to use groups after all, and therefore don't want the group pop-up menu to appear, open iChat's preferences, click the General icon, and deselect the "Use groups in Buddy List" checkbox.
An Easy Audio Fix -- Sometimes during the course of an audio chat, the sound quality can degrade as you talk. To improve the audio without making a new connection, click the Mute button in the audio chat window, then click Mute again. iChat re-evaluates the available bandwidth and improves the connection.
Sending and Receiving Files -- Don't tell the music cartel, but iChat ends up being a highly effective peer-to-peer file transfer mechanism. However, there are better things to do than send MP3 files. I've used iChat to zing Mac OS X installer packages from one Mac to another in my house without needing to set up file sharing, for example. I've also been able to send Take Control ebook files to Adam and Tonya instantly for quick back and forth design work. And it's wicked easy to bounce a digital photo to my Mom in Sacramento. In fact, when you send an image via iChat, a preview appears within the text chat window; clicking it grabs the full-size image. The same is true for PDF files too: you can even scroll through their pages in the chat window. However, I advise against sending PDFs that are larger than a page or two, because iChat can get hung up waiting to complete the transfer.
Once you've received a file from someone, where does it end up? In Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, iChat gets this information from the Safari's General preferences.
iChat AV may not be the ultimate chat client, but the fact that it comes with all new Macs for free makes it easy to try out (iChat 1.0 shipped with Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar; iChat AV 2.0 ships with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, or is available for Jaguar users as a separate $30 purchase). Before iChat, we didn't use chat or instant messaging at all when producing TidBITS, and although we're not typing away at each other all day long now, there's no question that iChat has proved useful to us. If you've been wondering what all the fuss is about, give iChat a try.