IM+ Offers Push for the iPhone, But Not Much More

Recently we took our first look at a breed of instant messaging applications that aim to overcome the limitations the iPhone imposes on users, namely the lack of ability to operate in the background.

IM+ is this week’s entrant. Developed by another veteran of mobile IM, SHAPE Services, it proposes to get around the ongoing lack of support for third-party push data or background operation on the iPhone the same way last week’s did: By mediating between the iPhone and instant messaging networks, sending e-mail notifications whenever the user’s in another application.

IM+ and Push
To set up IM+’s e-mail push feature, users provide an e-mail account SHAPE’s servers can send notifications to. As with last week’s BeejiveIM, an e-mail account that supports real push — such as an account from Apple’s MobileMe — will probably be easier on the iPhone’s battery. Alternately, using a mobile provider’s e-mail to SMS gateway will do the trick provided one has a decent messaging plan. IM+ offers a thoughtful touch at this point in the setup process: Instead of forcing the user to do some sort of test to make sure the account is set up correctly, SHAPE sends a message to the account.

At this point, it’s worth comparing IM+ to BeejiveIM, the subject of last week’s review. The two companies have set different standards for themselves, and there’s an argument to be made for each approach.

IM+ mail notifications are barebones and a little confusing. Click for a larger image.

BeejiveIM offers more flexibility in terms of how users can configure its e-mail push feature by providing preferences to set how long the application must be inactive before it signs users off their IM accounts (anywhere from 10 minutes to 24 hours). That flexibility exists to serve another goal BeejiveIM aims for, which is creating a sense of seamless presence. During the period between exiting the app and being signed off the IM network for inactivity, BeejiveIM maintains the fiction that the user is online and available.

IM+ does no such thing. When IM+ isn’t running on the iPhone (in other words, any time it isn’t the active application), SHAPE’s servers change the user’s status to “Away” and forward incoming messages to the designated e-mail account. Users who don’t reactivate IM+ for somewhere in the area of 12 hours get an e-mail message telling them they’re about to be completely signed off the IM network. Each of the notifications IM+ sends offer a link the user can follow to be signed off all their IM accounts.

There’s one more wrinkle in IM+’s approach we should mention, and it represents our single biggest complaint about the app:

While exiting the app sets the user’s status to “Away,” turning off the iPhone’s display while in IM+ causes it to completely sign the user off any open IM connections within a minute or two. The same goes for leaving IM+ on and letting the phone go to sleep by leaving it alone for a minute. This seems a little off to us. We’d think a number of people might use IM+ in settings where they turn off their phone display between sending or receiving messages to conserve battery power, or where they might simply tuck their phone back in their pocket after sending a message without exiting IM+. It seems inconsistent for the app to hold a connection open for 12 hours when users exit it, but completely close a connection if the user does nothing more than leave the phone unattended for a few moments with the app still in the foreground.

Another difference between IM+ and BeejiveIM lies in their respective approaches to processing incoming messages:

BeejiveIM’s mail notifications offer the text of the incoming message plus a button the user can tap to open the app up to the chat. IM+, on the other hand, provides the text of the message and a link to the signoff URL along with a message that reads:

To send a reply, type your message in the beginning of the window.

You may quote the original text.

Feel free to remove all unnecessary text lines added by your mail application.

That message involved a moment of bemusement, until we decided it might mean “reply to this e-mail and make sure you strip out your signature or that’s going to be sent to your contact, too.” Sure enough, that’s exactly what it meant. When users reply to an IM notification, SHAPE’s e-mail server strips out the instructions it provides in the notification before processing them through a mail-to-IM gateway. Responses take a minute to arrive on the buddy’s client.

So Which Is Better?
Though BeejiveIM has the more polished of the two push implementations, we’re hesitant to say one approach is better than the other because priorities will differ.

Some people, for instance, rely on their IM client providing somewhat detailed presence information to their contacts. In February we talked about ways to keep IM distractions at bay, including taking advantage of status messages to convey just how open you are to interruption. If you’re the type to wander from your desk or out of the office but like the idea of being “available” or “kind of here,” or “not at my desk but contactable,” BeejiveIM offers the better approach.

IM+, on the other hand, offers the benefit of simplicity. You’re either “Available” or “Away,” so switching out of IM+ doesn’t involve remembering to set your status to anything because that’s taken care of. One thing that mars this simplicity is our previously mentioned issue with the way IM+ decides whether you’re merely “Away” or completely offline.

Using IM+
IM+ offers support for the major IM networks (AOL, Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk, Jabber, ICQ) and MySpace. For each it does little more than offer basic IM. The overall user experience is pretty Spartan.

The program’s contact list shows contacts by their nicknames if those have been set, or their screen names if not. There’s no option to sort contacts by group, and there’s no additional information available within the list itself besides a single status icon. Tapping a blue information arrow next to a contact opens a screen with basic information (network, status, group and nickname).

Status options for the user are limited to a list of four: Online, Away, Invisible and Offline. There’s no way to customize them or add new ones.

Configuration options are limited as well: Users can set up their accounts with the most basic settings. The ability to set up IM+ as a named resource or assign it a priority is missing from the XMPP-related account settings. There’s a basic setup screen for the push notification service, too, but that’s it for configuration choices.

Actual chat sessions offer a plain, unadorned display with the single “extra” being its ability to work in landscape mode, which provides access to a larger, more comfortable keyboard. There’s no shortcut for emoticons. It’s possible to switch between chats with different contacts, but that’s offered in the form of three small period-sized dots at the bottom of the chat area, just over the keyboard. There’s no way to tell which dot leads to which chat, and tapping them is a real pain, since they’re so close to the keyboard that it’s easy to tap the “t” or “y” by mistake.

IM+ suffered from the occasional connection problem when we used it. It seemed to have a hard time rejoining IM networks if we turned off the iPhone’s screen while still in the application, and it couldn’t connect with newly created accounts until we exited and reentered it.

Finally, we discovered a bug in the way IM+ handles its interaction with AIM that proved pretty frustrating:

AIM offers a useful service for mobile users or anyone who uses more than one IM client (perhaps running one at work and one at home). When it detects two logins from the same user, each logged in client gets a message offering a way to disconnect the other session by replying to the message with “1.” For people who occasionally leave themselves signed on at the office, or who want to chat from their phones having forgotten to sign off at home, that’s pretty handy. However IM+ is managing presence with AIM breaks that feature. Several times we signed in to IM+, got the message informing us that we were logged in elsewhere, replied with a “1” to close the other session, and found ourselves being disconnected from IM+ instead. Worse, we got the messages when we weren’t signed on to any other clients.

Wrapping Up
IM+ sells for $9.99 at the iTunes App Store. It represents the “full” version of IM+ Lite, which is available at no cost and offers exactly the same features as IM+ minus the push e-mail feature. Taking IM+ on its own, the question is whether the push feature is worth $9.99. For people who like the push implementation’s simplicity and can live with its inconsistency, maybe so.

Both IM+ and BeejiveIM will have to prove themselves once Apple gets around to implementing its push services API and their own workarounds aren’t as much of a feature. Comparing IM+ to BeejiveIM, which sells for $15.99, we’re inclined to say the extra $5.99 for a much more configurable, sophisticated interface is money well spent. It’s hard to imagine someone who’s willing to pay $9.99 for an iPhone IM client being unwilling to pay a few dollars more for a better all-around client.

Article courtesy of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.


iPhone, applications, instant messaging, IM