Kurt McKee

lessons learned in production


Hey there! This article was written in 2006.

It might not have aged well for any number of reasons, so keep that in mind when reading (or clicking outgoing links!).

IM And Me: A History

Posted 26 August 2006 in chat and history

I've been IMing people for a very long time, across many, many chat protocols, computers, and operating systems. I thought it would be fun to walk through time, noting the important highlights.

In the beginning

My parents bought me a VTech PreComputer 2000 when I was still quite young. The gadget had a full keyboard and a primitive two line text display. Among other things, it came with a near-complete implementation of BASIC. I first learned how to program using that simple device.

One weekend I attended a 20th century piano festival, and a girl named Joanna rode with my family. On the car ride home, I taught her how to make the PreComputer display text. Thus, we spent the time handing the thing back and forth - I would write a line of code, and would pass the computer to her so she could run the program and read what I wrote.

10 PRINT "Hello, Joanna! How are you?"
Hello, Joanna! How are you?

She would then spend a good five minutes typing, and hand it back to me.

10 PRINT "I'm fine. How did you like the piano festival?"
I'm fine. How did you like the piano festival?

That was my first "IM" experience.

A stumbling start

One day, a friend of mine named Aaron showed me ICQ, a little program that could be used to chat with people all over the world. "ICQ" is an oronym for "I Seek You", and at the time I thought it was pretty cool. Unfortunately, Aaron was the only person I knew who used ICQ - while he boasted an impressive contact list of people he met in Ultima Online, I had no source of instant "friends" (and Aaron was never online to chat).

I still have that first account, although nobody I know still uses ICQ. My account number is 32847802, if you're ever interested.

My first addiction

Chat rooms. Wow. My friend Robert found a web-based IRC place at Alamak Chat and demonstrated it to me. I tried it out and got hooked - I was talking with people all over the world! It was all stupid stuff, I'm sure, but it was addictive. I really connected with one user named "jules", who was a girl in Australia one year older than I. Eventually we swapped mailing addresses, intending to become pen pals.

One evening, however, my mom insisted that I get off of the internet so she could use the phone, and I barked back at her that I'd be off in a second, just give me a second! It was at that moment that I realized that I had become addicted, and the chat room had become a source of division between me and my family. I quit cold turkey.

Unfortunately, about three weeks later I received a very thoughtful package from Julia: several Australian chocolates, a photo, a note, toothpicks with Australian flags, and an assortment of other goodies. I never responded, and have felt for years that that reflected poorly on me.

A growing buddy list

AOL began to dominate the market, and I discovered that a number of my friends were using AIM. Finally, something with enough users to create a network effect! I jumped onboard and created an account, which I have held to this day. It's unfortunate I didn't think ahead...tacking my age to the end of the screen name wasn't the best choice I've ever made.

Speaking of which: at that point I was 14 years old.

AIM has consistently been the most-used chat protocol with my friends, although I rarely talk with people over AIM anymore.

Accounting for other friends

As I became more interested in Linux, I came to depend on Gaim for my chatting needs. As Gaim supported multiple chat protocols, I decided to sign on to the MSN and Yahoo networks using my Hotmail and Yahoo accounts; I also revived my old ICQ account. In all, I had four accounts in order to talk with many different people.

It was during this time in my life that I came to understand and hate proprietary chat networks. Early on, MSN Messenger tried to support AIM. AOL responded by changing their protocol in stupid ways. One of the most egregious changes was where they tested for a buffer overflow, a bug they knew only their official software had. The MSN developers responded by emulating the buffer overflow! The companies' childish behavior made it impossible for me to connect for long stretches of time.

Further, Yahoo consistently attempted to lock out third-party software programs. This resulted in me being unable to connect to their network for days and weeks at a time. I couldn't talk with my friends!

Breathing fresh air

Finally, at long last, I got an account on a Jabber-based server. The Jabber protocol is documented and open for anyone to implement. I was excited.

I evangelized my friends repeatedly, insisting that they needed to get an account on a Jabber server. A good dozen people started using Jabber because of me, and I've always viewed that as a triumph. Better, however, is Google's use of Jabber for Google Talk. Now I just have to hope that the other proprietary networks get their act together and switch to Jabber.

IM in my future

I have been digitally interacting with people for years and years, and I expect to continue to do so. IM is a clumsy and ineffective way to communicate on a personal level, as about 90% of the intended message is lost due to the digital medium. Nonetheless, it's a powerful way to communicate quickly, particularly when coordinating a trip to Chipotle.

I expect to continue using IM for many years to come, and to one day run my own Jabber server. I look forward to talking with you!

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