Why MS Messenger sucks at work (and an alternative)

Or at least, it sucks at work for most purposes.


  1. You’re dependent on an external server that has nothing to do with your company
  2. You’re passing your chat about work projects through a third-party server!
  3. It’s against the ToS for MS Messenger
  4. Limited message length (a complete pain for easily sharing code snippets)
  5. No offline messaging
  6. Single account, so you can only use one Messenger account at a time, potentially limiting your access to other people you know on other accounts, or meaning that everyone at work now knows your home e-mail address

Sadly, the benefits of casual use will normally outweigh these. i.e.

  1. You already use it
  2. Familiar UI
  3. All your friends already use it, and you like to talk to them (er, because they’re a “learning resource”, right?)
  4. You can send winks

OK, the last one is clearly a lie as no-one above the age of 16 sends or likes winks. Regardless, inertia alone will almost certainly carry MS Messenger from home into the workplace.

So, ideally then you’d buy Microsoft’s Live Communication Server product, install it, and continue to use the tool and interface you’re used to with the benefits of message security and ToS compliance, but now without your external friends on it. Rubbish.

So, what to do? Well, I’d advocate something along these lines:

  1. Install Wildfire Server for your business use
  2. Customise and package Miranda with some sensible default options rather than the ones it comes with (which are madness)
  3. Deploy your custom Miranda build

Miranda can connect to multiple Instant Messenger accounts at the same time, so that using the same client you can access your business IM network, your MS Messenger buddies, your Yahoo! pals, your AOL chums and your ICQ friends (although, apparently the Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 client can connect to the public MSN, AOL and Yahoo! networks).

The biggest downside of this approach is that you lose the ability to use voice and video communication over your work network, as Miranda doesn’t support using these either over the XMPP protocol (provided by the Wildfire Server) or any of the others, so this may not be suitable if tele- or video-communications are a regular feature of your instant messenger sessions (hopefully voice communication should start appearing in XMPP clients soon because Google have just published not only the protocol they use for chat but also some C++ libraries which implement it). You could use another alternative, such as using Skype, but then you lose your data security again so you’d probably be best off buying that Windows-client only MS Live Communication Server product for an exorbitant fee.

Of course, you could try and deploy a different client, for example an XMPP-specific one such as Exodus or Psi, and use transports for communication to the other protocols like MSN, Yahoo! etc. but in my experience despite these being more “correct” they tend to be more hassle than they’re worth (the coming range of Python-driven transports may change this – see PyAIM, XMPP-IRC, PyMSN-t and the Python Yahoo transport).

Make your links visible and obvious

How many links do you see?

How about here?

The answers are three and zero respectively. Did you guess two for each? Me too.

I didn’t think I’d have to do this after 2003, but I’m going to have to quote Jakob Nielson. In his Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2005 he writes:

Non-Standard Links: Make obvious what’s clickable: for text links, use colored, underlined text (and don’t underline non-link text).

Clearly Tantek needs to be reminded of this. On the other hand, Fintan Darragh has abided by this rule (as links on his blog are underlined blue text), but the number of other people who don’t, and just use a different background colour to indicate a link mean that his styling also appears wrong! What this seems to mean is that we’re so used to seeing strong and em styled only as bold and italic that anything else that is styled is very likely to be a link, whether it’s underlined or not. In fact, this principle governs an awful lot of the web, and is mostly just assumed to be true. There’s no easy solution to this. Maybe browsers should come with “underline links: always” turned on by default?

BBC new layout

Er, a bit behind the times, but never mind.

The BBC now has a prominent selector for the UK and International versions at the top of every single news page. They explain this on their help page with this marvellous piece of copy:

You have a choice of two versions – the UK version, and the international version – with a more international feel.

There doesn’t appear to be any way to get rid of the selector, so it just sits there, forever taunting me with the fact that I don’t live in Hawaii.

If you do switch the version from UK to International, you’ll discover that for some reason the UK style guide clearly doesn’t apply, and tabs are used for navigation between the sections listed at the top of the page, and that these tabs sit on a background with a grey to black gradient. How very Web 2.0 of them.

Cheers to blech for pointing it out.

Back burner projects

In the hope that writing them down might goad me into doing some of them, here’s a list of things which keep running through my head but which I’ve done little or nothing about:

  • Fix my blog template so that you can navigate between posts from an individual post’s page
  • Make blog archive page navigation easier
  • When I post a form, intercept it with Greasemonkey (thanks to Mark Pilgrim) and save that result somewhere and serve it as RSS as a trail of what I’m doing on the web
  • Write a Greasemonkey script which lets you select any element on a page and have it generate an XOXO file from the links inside it (i.e. create XOXO from blogrolls)
  • Write a Greasemonkey script which sends someone a Flickr mail when you tag a photo with user:name (as prompted by Tom Coates and blech on plasticbag.org)
  • Write that damned FOAF OnlineAccount generator using Jena. Stupid rdf:about=”” 🙁
  • Build WikidPad from source and use it to implement an RSS handling tool (as prompted by Gareth Simpson)
  • Generate an Atom file for each months’ worth of blog posts and use these to generate iCal files and views like the Sippey Timeline. I’ve been meaning to do this for almost two years 🙂
  • Update the Greasemonkey Textile as prompted in the comments and release the new version I wrote six months ago!
  • Finish writing an SVG tags over time graph-based browser (as prompted by Leigh Dodds). Stupid maths.

Kubuntu progress

I’ve now been running solely on Kubuntu for about two or three weeks now. Some impressions:

  • it’s noticably slower than Windows, even after the update to KDE 3.5
  • the Windows key is either a single key or a modifier, not both (so you can use it for bringing up the KDE ‘start menu’ or for going to the desktop (Win+D), bringing up the run prompt (Win+R), etc. – I need both!)
  • Firefox 1.0.7 is massively slow
  • Konqueror has excellent desktop integration, plus a stunning rendering engine, but doesn’t support bookmarklets(!), Greasemonkey (obviously), and there’s no easy way to write extensions
  • keyboard navigation is harder than on Windows (and no, it’s not just different – it’s often impossible to reach key areas of KDE without using the mouse.
  • the list of apps that comes with Kubuntu is impressive, and installing new apps is a breeze
  • almost all of the apps which are part of the KDE core are very very good
  • Kopete, on the other hand, is slightly disappointing (what’s with the giant blue heads?)
  • peripheral support is great, ditto for Bluetooth
  • no available blogging client: it’s Java, web-based or nothing for KDE users

In the end, the most important thing is speed. Either I’ll get more RAM (which I had been planning to do anyway), or I’ll switch back to Windows, it’s that easy. Wow, I never thought I’d reach the day when a desktop Linux was slower than Windows!

Official BBC blogs

The BBC has been playing with blogs, on and off, for the last couple of years. There was even an official Scotblog but that seemed to come to an end in November 2004. There have been any number of articles which resemble weblogs, where new content is added to the top of an article to display breaking news, such as the reports from Iraq and even weekly posts such as From the Editor’s Desktop (now sadly defunct). As Pete Clifton said in one of his FtED columns, they’ve tried to hold off calling something a weblog unless it was powered by proper weblog software, either bought or home-grown, and deployable at any place within the BBC News site.

Well, it looks like they’re starting to investigate those choices a bit more thoroughly.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor has a weblog on http://blogs.bbc.co.uk/nickrobinson/, powered by Six Apart and so is very probably Movable Type 3.x. “Proper” weblog software if ever there was such a thing.

You can also visit http://blogs.bbc.co.uk/ and see that it’s a republishing of Nick’s posts, and so is probably intended to be an aggregated view over all of the BBC’s webloggers using Six Apart’s system (or anything they liked, if it was being generated from RSS and Atom feeds). It’ll be interesting to see if the BBC get anyone else into this, and if so, who exactly it will be.

Tragically, Paxman will probably be too busy.

Or, as the spool point out, it could of course be TypePad. meh.

Sites with web standards

It used to be the case, back in the day, where I’d highlight every big site I came across which used CSS for layout, or even validated; but there came a point where enough sites were starting to use CSS and validating, that I stopped.

Still, it’s nice to reflect every now and again, and the new (to me, at least) oxfamunwrapped.com site, where you can buy gifts and vouchers from Oxfam uses CSS for layout. It doesn’t quite validate (although it’s close), and the markup isn’t quite semantic (div class="vspacer" anyone?), but it’s close enough and on a big enough site to be yet another reason to have a very merry Christmas this year 🙂