Talking tech since 2003

I am by all means an IRC addict.  My IRC client, Textual (written and maintained by BestTechie contributing author Michael Morris) is the first application that I open and look at in the morning and is the last application I check before closing the lid on my MacBook Pro at night.  That said, a great part of my day is indeed spent on IRC, and if I’m not actively engaging in a conversation I do at very least have Textual open to keep an eye on what all of my friends are up to.  Because of the amount of time that I spend on IRC, most of my person-to-person conversations naturally take place either in channels or in private messages.  But when it comes to chatting with my real-life friends who tend to utilize more “modern” instant messaging solutions I have always found myself using another application altogether.

A couple of years ago I became more and more frustrated with this fact.  After all, all me and my IM friends did was chat in plain-text.  I never really took advantage of the webcam or file-sharing functionality of the rather “bulky” instant messaging clients out there so it really upset me that I had to use them just to be able to talk to my friends.  Sure, multi-network clients like Pidgin and Trillian, or even Adium or OS X’s built-in iChat are great, but when it comes down to it these clients too have done way more than I needed.  After my somewhat pitfall complaining, a friend of mine (a deaf user who clung to her IRC client because her text-to-speech software performed better with it than on other instant messaging clients) suggested that I look into BitlBee; a gateway that bridges “modern” instant messaging networks over to a customized IRCd that allows for an IRC user to engage in IM (AIM, GTalk, etc.) messages via their IRC client.

At the time I had given it a go on a public BitlBee server, but I soon ended up steering away from it because it felt incredibly buggy and didn’t seem to support some of the networks that I wanted to connect to (predominantly Yahoo).  Looking back at it now, I’m sure part of the issue was the fact that I was unwilling to learn the entirely text-based interface, but there really isn’t any denying that BitlBee wasn’t exactly ready to take on my instant messaging needs.

But a couple of weeks ago I decided to give BitlBee a go again.  I had run it a few times on my VPS just to mess around with it, but this time I honestly and sincerely wanted to adopt it as my new instant messaging utility.  Grabbing the tarball from BitlBee’s website (using the Linux “wget” command), untaring it and doing the typical “./configure” procedure to set up and get directions for compiling the daemon was pretty simple.  Admittedly I did end up tweaking the configure script to fine-tune the directory structure so that I could run BitlBee fully out of my home directory, but even that was a simple task.

Once I edited and specified some options in the BitlBee configuration file I was ready to use it.  Upon connecting with Textual I was immediately able to set up my account on the server and add my instant messaging accounts to it.  I’ll spare you the details on everything I did here as the directions can be found in this rather handy guide or by typing “help commands” in the “&bitlbee” channel once connected, but all in all everything went very smoothly; much better than my first experience.

Now, when I first decided to go through with this journey I was simply hoping to be able to configure my regular instant messaging accounts.  But while I was pleased simply to be able to set up AIM, Yahoo, Google Talk, and even Facebook’s Jabber-based chat, I was really impressed to see that BitlBee had Twitter support as well.  Talk about a score, right?

Now that I have everything setup and configured to my liking, I’ll explain my setup just a bit.  I have all of my instant messaging contacts in one convenient virtual channel, and whenever I want to send them a message I can simply “query” or “PM” them like I would any other IRC contact.  This required me to tweak one setting (“private”) with the “set” command, but was far from a challenge.  I also tweaked my user configuration file (stored as an XML file on the server) to show offline users as well and give “available” users “half-op” status and “away” users “voiced” status to better organize them, as I couldn’t find a way to change this from the control channel.

I am also using BitlBee as my Twitter client, as well, with the tweets of all the people I follow on Twitter showing up in a separate channel.  I can also post out to Twitter simply by posting a message in that channel just as easily.  The one thing I don’t seem to be the ability to do is send/receive direct messages between other users, so for many this might not be a full-on alternative to your run of the mill Twitter clients.

All of this said, BitlBee is definitely worth checking out if you’re a casual instant messaging user who doesn’t utilize the more advanced features of your instant messaging client/service.  If you don’t have a personal server or do not wish to run BitlBee on your server you can take advantage of the publicly operated servers out there, but I would always edge with caution when doing so.  I myself am always wary about letting my often-sensitive conversations being handled with third parties, so the paranoid part of me feels the need to warn you about the potential for someone to eavesdrop on your conversations on a server that they run.

Additionally, it would be reckless of me to ignore the fact that BitlBee is going to require a bit of research and reading in order to get working, and for many users will not be worth it.  I mean, setting up and configuring a user account is going to be a challenge for the novice user who is used to doing everything with graphical interface, and if you opt to go the self-hosted route the task of configuring/compiling is going to be that much harder.  But for people like myself who have a bit of Linux know-how and enough patience to go through with the setup process BitlBee is definitely worth looking into if you only use text-based messaging.

On a side note, you might want to consider pairing BitlBee with an IRC bouncer (I use ZNC, myself) in order to attain better uptime, attach/detach support, and the ability to do server-side logging; something the BitlBee doesn’t offer natively.`

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