Help-Key: How to Instant Message on your iPhone

ipod2.jpgRegular readers might recall that when I reviewed the iPhone back in early July that I took issue with the handset’s lack of basic features that low-end phones supported. I griped about the lack of multiple recipients for a text message, the lack of picture messaging, and the conspicuous absence on any form of instant messaging application.

Apple’s big into its iChat program, and for good reason: few, if any, Mac users use the AIM client for OS X, instead using the bundled iChat. So it stood to reason that it would be easy enough for Apple to bring the application over to the iPhone, being that both the iPhone and a Mac run OS X. It didn’t happen, and we can’t figure out why.

But we’re not here to dissect the brain of Steve Jobs, that’s another website’s problem. We’re here to tell you how to fill the gap he left on the iPhone, and make it useful.

Let’s go back in time to just prior to the iPhone’s launch, the first half of June 2007. At the Apple WWDC, Steve told a large audience that the iPhone would not be supporting third-party apps in a traditional sense, but they were more than welcome to code for the Safari Web browser’s built-in AJAX support. While it was better than nothing, you could feel the absolute disappointment that rolled through Mascone Center.

That means that the first hacks to allow IM via the iPhone were Web-based, and weren’t really even hacks. Meebo is a general Web-based IM client that works with any Web browser. Sure enough, it works fine with Safari, giving iPhoners a half-way decent wat to message. What’s great about Meebo is that it supports all four of the big IM networks: AIM, MSN, Yahoo!, and Jabber (gChat). But it’s not perfect. While it works well enough for incidental instant messages, it’s not for those who are used to an always-on IM.

It’s easy enough to use, point your Safari to meebo’s website, enter your information, and you’re pretty much set. The alerts leave quite a bit to be desired, but it’s free, and easier than a Hilton in a Vegas VIP room, so it’s a great place to start.

Another Web-based IM client that works with iPhone is Beejive. Beejive is fairly similar to Meebo, but it adds more IM networks, such as ICQ and even MySpace instant messenger. What’s more is Beejive has taken the initiative and added an iPhone-specific version of its messenger to its site, matching the look and feel of the iPhone interface. It’s a better choice than Meebo in many ways, but again you’re stuck in Safari (ironic, no?).

If you’re OK with that, you’re in good shape at this point. But again, it’s not the full messenger app we want (and, really, expected). ApolloIM is.

Based in the wonderful world of Google code, ApolloIM is the real deal. Not just in that it’s an actual application, but in that it’s a good one. All the features a full-blown instant messanger are included, such as group messaging, group management, stealth modes, and the cure for cancer. It does it all, and it’s free.

The only trick is that because Apple doesn’t support third-party apps, you need to jump through a few hoops to get it installed. Nothing too complex for those of us who are at least moderately tech-savvy, but your Mom might have a hard time getting it all worked out.

You’ll need the custom installer application, which you download via Safari. Once it’s on your iPhone (we recommend installing over a WiFi network, as a spotty EDGE connection could take awhile and you risk corrupted downloads), you’ll simply run it and follow the instructions on the screen.

When prompted, select “Community Sources” from the pull down menu and install it. Do the same for “BSD Subsystem” and “Apollo 1.0”. Congratulations, you’ve installed your first custom application on an iPhone, and likely it won’t be your last.

Keep in mind that as this method is technically a hack and unsupported by Apple you’re putting your precious phone at risk. Not just in the fact that you’re making it do stuff it was never meant to do, but in that you’re voiding your warranty and adding software that could act unpredictably with your desktop. Read through the disclaimers and instructions carefully, and think through if it’s something you want to do.

Chances are good that if you’re reading this far, you’re into it. And good for you. The vigor with which the OS X developer community has shown in respect to hacking the iPhone is nothing short of outstanding. That being said, it’s totally understandable: the iPhone is more than a phone, it’s an ultra-portable computing platform that works quite well, something we’ve been looking for for awhile.

(Let’s not get the Windows Mobile or Palm OS or Symbian conversation going here. Suffice it to say that Windows Mobile is still crappy, Palm OS hasn’t changed much since Tom Hanks was funny, and Symbian’s, sadly, an also-ran. We’ll have that talk later, I promise.)

Also keep in mind that because this is unsupported software, we can’t recommend installing it. We’re happy to tell you how and let you know it exists, but know that it’s new, it’s probably still buggy, and is still under development. While it’s far and away the best choice out there, just know that that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Nothing likely will be until Apple introduces its own version. We’re the messenger, and all that.

That being said, if you get it working without bricking your little multi-touch friend, let us know about it here. As with the iPod self-fix a few months back, we love hearing success stories.

Look for more iPhone hack how-tos here, as this is the tip of the proverbial iCeberg (haha!)

[Big Ups to Jason Chen for a little help here. He knows more about the iPhone than I do. You could say he wrote the book on it.]