Apple today released a public beta of iChat AV 2.2, the company's popular instant-messaging and audio/video conferencing application. In addition to providing a handful of bug fixes, the update incorporates support for Microsoft's MSN text messaging network.
Previously, the MSN network was unavailable to iChat users because iChat uses the AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) network, and the two protocols are incompatible. Although AIM boasts over 100 million users, many iChat users (myself included) found themselves unable to communicate with friends and relatives whose companies use MSN at work. The solution has been to run Microsoft's MSN Messenger for Mac (available as a free download or bundled with Microsoft Office X) in addition to iChat. Even other chat utilities such as Fire, which can straddle multiple instant messaging protocols, have not been able to offer a way to communicate directly between AIM and MSN.
The iChat AV 2.2 Public Beta bridges the gap by automatically translating the protocols using an intermediary array of G5 Xserves housed at Apple's data centers. Apple claims that the translation process doesn't affect performance of text messaging or file transfers (which, like previous versions of iChat, are set up as direct connections between the two computers participating in the transfer).
The Price of Compatibility -- However, due to the volume of instant messaging traffic, this new service isn't completely free. In a deal worked out between Apple and Microsoft, chat sessions between iChat and MSN clients will include "short, targeted, and relevant" promotional messages within text chats; the text appears in the same gray, sans-serif text used to display timestamps and other system messages (such as "Direct Instant Message session started").
The two companies promise that the messages won't be obtrusive, and that users will find them useful - for example, providing offers for $5 off the price of Microsoft Office when the message is clicked. If the sponsored message system is successful, according to insiders at each company, they might consider selling subscriptions that would display specific information in the gray promotional text, such as virus alerts, stock quotes, and news headlines. (I should point out that similar functionality can be had using third-party iChat utilities such as iChat Status or Status Symbol, which use iChat's status message to display this type of information.)
There's good news for .Mac subscribers, however. Because the protocol translation service is offered by Apple, people who have paid for the full .Mac service (which costs $100 per year) can opt to not see the sponsored messages. iChat checks that the .Mac member name matches the one listed in the .Mac preference pane in Mac OS X's System Preferences (and that it's an active .Mac account) and automatically disables the messages; you can go into iChat's preferences to turn the feature back on, if you choose.
iChat AV 2.2 Public Beta requires Mac OS X 10.3.3 or later and is available as a 6.3 MB download from Apple's Web site. The beta is set to expire 01-Apr-05.