Sunday, May 9, 2010

iChat AV in Depth

iChat is one of those Mac programs I think Mac users either take for granted or just completely ignore. It is an incredibly useful technology however that really deserves a closer look. All MobileMe users have an iChat account and iChat uses the AIM network to allow Instant Message conversations among friends. However when iChat was first released in 2002 it was the first AIM chat client on OS X. AIM at the time still ran in classic mode.

Later iChat was upgraded to include voice and video and was named iChat AV. iChat AV in addition to supporting H.264 video it also got the ability to work with Google Talk, Facebook Chat, and other services that support the Jabber protocol for Instant Messaging. They also added the ability for up to 4 people to join a video conference and up to ten in an audio conference. With the next release of OS X 10.5 iChat got an upgrade to include iChat Theater so you could share videos, Keynote Presentations and other files with people in your conference by dragging a dropping a file on the video of the person to whom you are sending the file. They also added Desktop sharing allowing users in a video conference to share their desktop and allow the person on the other end to control their computer. It is great for support professionals or for people collaborating on projects together. They also added backdrops and special effects that can be done to the video live. The special effects only work on Intel model Macs and while not particularly useful are a lot of fun.

If you are a MobileMe subscriber Apple also added an option to encrypt chats between users but that feature requires a MobileMe or .Mac account.

Yet again with the release of OS X 10.6 Apple again tweaked iChat a bit and lowered it’s bandwidth requirements for audio and video conferences making it available to users on slower computer networks. iChat does still suffer from a few minor issues that Apple could easily correct and third party vendors have made some plugins to make iChat a little more useful over the years.

The most useful features of iChat are of course keeping in touch with friends, family, and clients. It is nice to have a quick get together with people in other states and be able to sit down and talk without the need to travel. I can talk with someone and look them in the eye while we are scattered all over the world. Being able to talk to a client and take remote control of there computer and show them how to solve a problem and never leave my office. It saves me commute time and allows me to get more work done faster while still giving personal service.

Currently I use iChat to keep in touch with people on AIM, Google Talk, and Facebook. Anytime I have iChat open all the services show my status as available or away if my screen saver turns on and updates my friends lists when I return to my computer. I can now chat live with Friends on Facebook without even having to login.

The downside of having four or five accounts active in iChat is each one has it’s own window. This is a bit of a shortcoming not having the option to put everyone in just one display but a developer has solved that problem with a free plugin called Chax. Chax http://www.ksuther.com/chax/ is a bandaid for iChat and allows you to setup iChat to show one contact window with all your accounts displayed in one convenient place. It also adds Growl Notification so you can be notified of activity in iChat without having to look at an iChat Window. Growl just pops up the notifications you select on a portion of the screen you select and after a few seconds or a user click the notice goes away. Chax gives you much more control over how you use iChat and is the most important plugin for any Apple product I have seen. It has made iChat an indispensable tool.

To setup iChat to use Facebook Chat Open iChat and goto iChat Preferences, Choose Accounts, click the plus to add a new account and enter the following settings

Account Type: Jabber
Account Name: facebookid@chat.facebook.com
Password: facebookpassword

Next Click on the Server Options and enter the following settings

Server: chat.facebook.com
Port: 5222

Now you can send and receive chats right on your desktop and not have to login to Facebook. Warning this is another thing that has the potential to be a real productivity killer. Remember you can set yourself as unavailable in iChat if you are busy and really don’t have time to talk.

One of iChat’s most serious drawbacks right now is once you enter screen sharing there is no way to get back to a video conference without ending and restarting the call. In the Screen Sharing session your desktop shrinks to a Picture in Picture box on the bottom of your screen. The rest of your screen is the desktop of the persons computer you are controlling. If you need to go back to your desktop for something just click and the PIcture In Picture swaps and you are in control of your desktop. If you click the X in the corner of the PIcture in Picture the Screen Sharing and Video Conference disconnects and you have to setup a new call.

In recent months I have also noticed several failed calls when trying to setup a video conference. I am not sure why this is happening yet but every time it does iChat sends Apple a message about the call failures so they can improve the quality of the product.

The last thing iChat needs is better control over the camera settings. For those of us who want to make changes there should be an advanced button to let us change camera settings like iGlasses does. Currently I can’t recommend iGlasses since it forces users to set iChat, Safari, Quicktime X, and Photo booth into 32 bit mode.

Overall as webcams become more ubiquitous and as more AIM messengers embrace video conferencing I think it will become more common place to use it. The real breakthrough will come when AIM users can video chat with MSN users. The problem with IM systems today is they don’t work like the phone company. I should be able to have one account on one IM service and be able to chat with anyone on any other service. It looks like that will be a long way off yet and we will be stuck with having four or five accounts to talk to our friends and the features we have available in those chats will be dependent on the particular IM service we are using.