Home Apple Decyphering Apple chat and messaging choices for Mac and iOS.

Decyphering Apple chat and messaging choices for Mac and iOS.

by Philip Sellers

Apple has made a name for itself by inventing solutions with slick and well thought out interfaces that are easy to understand and use.  It has also made a name for itself as an innovator, creating new technology after new technology.  Most times, Apple has had a very focused strategy when it comes to solving a particular problem, but with several introductions in the past two years, its fragmented its strategy when it comes to video and text chat and messaging.  As I was talking with a friend, I realized there are lots of Apple solutions in this area and each has limitations or restrictions depending on device or connectivity.  So, for anyone new to the Apple ecosystem, I hope to go over all the current Apple (and a couple of non-Apple) solutions for chat and messaging.


I’ll start with iChat, the grand-daddy of the messaging apps.  It debuted in 2002 and was primarily Apple’s own instant messaging client for AOL Instant Messenger.  At first, it was a text only chat, but later versions added video features, screen sharing between other iChat users and even presentation sharing and video conferencing.   compatibility with other messaging networks has also expanded over time.  iChat now supports Jabber-based networks like Google’s Talk, Windows Messenger and Facebook, MobileMe/iCloud accounts via the AIM network, and Yahoo Messenger, and even ICQ.

Great for: Mac to Mac communication and Mac to PC communication.  Since it supports third-party networks, anyone logged into one of these networks is accessible to you as long as you also have an account on that network.  If a mobile phone user has a client and is logged-in, you can communicate with them too.

Downsides: Advanced features, such as video chat, conferencing, and screen sharing, are iChat to iChat only features and requires an AOL Instant Messaging account to make these features work.   There isn’t an iChat for iOS, which is odd considering all that it could do.  It would be nice to have a video conference with Mac users while on the go.


Photo by Flickr user thms.nl

With the iPhone 4, Apple introduced a  proprietary video chat called FaceTime.  It was first released as an iPhone to iPhone video chat, but Apple quickly released a version of FaceTime for Mac which allowed Mac to iPhone video chat.  For phone to phone, it uses the customer’s mobile phone number to be able to FaceTime and for Mac users, it uses an iTunes account and email address to identify the user.  The Mac app resembles the iPhone address book with Favorites and Contacts listed like the iPhone call screen. In the past year, FaceTime has been added as a feature to the iPad 2 and iPod Touch, as well, using iTunes accounts and email addresses to identify users.

Great for: Dead simple video chat between users of Apple products.  It does not require a third party network (AIM, Yahoo, Google) or an account, but relies instead on an iTunes account which every iPhone and Mac user likely already has.

Downsides: FaceTime came with one big limitation – it is Wifi only.  It does not work over cellular networks.  There is no Windows client.  Although certainly simpler to use, FaceTime does not seem like a full Mac app and seems it could be integrated with iChat (or vice-versus) since there is feature overlap.  The primary difference is third party chat network versus Apple proprietary FaceTime.


Similiar to FaceTime, iMessage was introduced as a text messaging or SMS alternative.  It relies on open internet and it an Apple proprietary network.  It auto identifies other iMessage users and prefers that network to the carrier’s text messaging network when it finds two iMessage users (with iMessage enabled).  The message changes from the normal green colored talk bubble to a light blue talk bubble when using iMessage.  The best thing is that it isn’t a switch the user must think about – it just happens automatically.  The closest product on market to this is probably Blackberry’s Messenger product that allows Blackberry to Blackberry free messages.

Great for: Text and image messages between iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users running iOS5. It also lessens customer’s dependency on the carrier’s expensive text messaging plans.

Disadvantages: There isn’t a Mac client for iMessage.  It doesn’t work with other mobile devices – only iOS devices.  Wouldn’t this be handy to have in iChat somehow?  When the internet is clogged (like Disney World during Thanksgiving), messages can get stuck going out, but you can turn off iMessage and switch back to the cell network in settings.


And then there is Skype.  It is not an Apple technology, but its worth including given the fact that it runs on Mac and iOS devices, plus it adds the text message, video calling and voice calling features in a single app.  Skype is also written for almost every other device in the world and it is capable of calling anyone with a phone number anywhere in the world.

Great for: Calling PC users, users without a computer but with a phone number and strong video chat technology over both 3G and WiFi (technically, even 2G networks, though data speeds are too slow for video to work effectively). It allows very inexpensive international voice calls (computer or mobile phone to phone number).  Video chat and computer to computer voice calls are free.

Downsides: Requires another third party account.  Another billing source (if you make voice calls to phone numbers).  Many users complain of dropped calls and non-existent customer support, but what can you expect for a free service.

Disclaimer: This isn’t an exhaustive list of chat client, nor is it intended to be.  As you’ll see on my Mac App Discovery page, I have been a longtime user of Adium, however in recent years, my primary iChat use is remote screen sharing to help my friends when they run into problems.  Adium doesn’t do that, iChat does.  I use iChat.  There are lots of options – Trillium, Adium, etc.  Point is, I’ve got confused friends when it comes to the stock Apple solutions and which one to use for what.  Just trying to clear that up… 

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