Group chat showdown: Which instant messaging service is best for your business?

What happens when your team needs to have a conversation, yet coworkers are scattered across town or even around the world? Conference calls can be pricey and inefficient: Talkers often overlap, no one can hear each other well, and there’s no record of who said what. Oh, and you can’t exactly share a file over the phone.

Sometimes, when you can’t meet in person, it’s better to meet in a virtual space. Group chat services offer private rooms for business discussions, with handy features like transcripts, file sharing, and mobile apps. It’s like regular instant messaging, but with an express focus on group conversations.

I put three popular group-chat services through their paces: Campfire, HipChat, and Imo.im. The first two were built with business users in mind, while Imo.im is a more general-purpose chat system that offers cross-platform compatibility—meaning you can talk with others regardless of what existing IM service they already use: AIM, Facebook, Google Talk, MSN, Yahoo, and so on.

Speaking of those more traditional IM tools, any one of them will do in a pinch. But they’re more tailored to one-on-one chats between friends than mission-critical discussions with groups. Read on to find out how a more specialized service can help you keep in touch with far-flung workers—and which one offers the best mix of features and affordability.

Within a browser, both Campfire and HipChat display images that users send to the group.

Interface

Although there may be times when you need to chat on the run (see the Mobile section below), it’s a safe bet you’ll do most of your messaging on your laptop or desktop. Consequently, you’ll want a chat service that looks good and, more importantly, offers a simple, streamlined interface.

Emphasis is on “simple.” The last thing busy workers need is a learning curve, so if it’s not immediately clear how to join a room, share a file, or review the chat history, then that’s no good. Fortunately, all three services keep things fairly straightforward.

Campfire and HipChat, for example, rely on the concept of the lobby, which is where you can see all your rooms (each represented by a tab), get status updates on each one (such as who’s chatting and for how long), and create new ones. HipChat has the slightly prettier front end, and its lobby conveniently lists both online and offline users. From here, it’s a simple matter to start a one-to-one chat with anyone who’s online. Campfire doesn’t work that way, instead it forces users into a designated room. What's more, it doesn’t provide a list of who’s online. Ultimately, I like HipChat’s approach better.

Imo.im, which for many has taken the place of recently discontinued cross-platform chat service Meebo, works a little differently, listing in a right-hand column your available and offline “buddies” from various services. To start a chat with someone, you just double-click his or her name. The interface can look cluttered and a bit confusing at first, at least until you shut down the social-minded Meet New People column on the left.

All three services work within the confines of your Web browser, but HipChat also gives you the option of using an Adobe AIR-powered desktop client. This doesn’t really add much in terms of features, but it might prove useful in organizations that block various websites, and some people like keeping their chat clients and browser windows separate. Ironically, you need a browser to install the AIR client, and I ran into problems getting it to work in Google Chrome. After a quick switch to Firefox, the installation went fine.

Ultimately, HipChat offers the best overall interface, though Campfire runs at a close second. Imo.im often feels cluttered and busy, though the actual chat area is clean enough to be practical.

In a browser chat room IMO.im does not display images inline.

Features

Campfire, HipChat, and Imo.im all cover the chat basics pretty well, meaning that in addition to straightforward instant messaging among multiple participants, they let you share files, store and search transcripts, and so on. But as you might expect, some fare a little better than others in certain areas.

For example, in Campfire and HipChat, you can upload a photo that gets instantly embedded into the chat thread—a great way to show your group, say, a new product or website redesign. These two also keep a running tally of all your uploads. With Imo.im, shared photos (and other files) aren't embedded as actual images. Instead, they’re represented by a link. One click opens a file in a new tab, but it’s still an extra step that bounces you away from the chat. And although those links remain in your chat history, there’s no separate listing of them for easy review later on.

Speaking of history, any decent chat service will keep a record of each chat session—and all three of these do exactly that (though not always by default; in Imo.im, you must enable the option). Campfire keeps histories neatly organized in an omnipresent tab: Files, Transcripts & Search.

Next page: We pick a winner...

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