PDA Pundit: IM on the Run

This is how much I love instant messaging: My own husband, who uses Yahoo Instant Messaging because his company demands it, put me on his blocked list. He says he feared I'd bombard him with IMs. I kid you not.

I found out by accident one day when I was using his notebook. Mine was the only handle on the blocked list, so it was easy to see. I removed myself, then confronted him (with only a slight note of outrage in my voice). The cad initially said he had no idea how my name got blocked. Whenever I bring it up now, though, he just giggles. But I notice he hasn't dared to add me to his blocked list again.

He may have a point. While he only tolerates instant messaging because his telecommuting colleagues all use it, I am a total IM addict. I use Trillian at work (the universal IM client that earned one of our World Class Awards); I send IMs to fellow insomniac buddies in the middle of the night; and now, thanks to a little application called Verichat from PDAapps, I can IM friends and colleagues from just about anyplace on my PalmOne Treo 600 PDA/cell phone.

The AIM-for-Palm Fiasco

It wasn't always so easy. As an IM aficionado, one of the first things I usually do when evaluating connected PDAs is try to use them for AOL Instant Messaging. (Even though my hubby is on Yahoo, most of my friends and colleagues are on AIM, with a couple of ICQ holdouts. I don't know anyone who uses MSN only.) AOL offers clients for Palm handhelds and Pocket PCs, priced at $20 each. I've generally had no problem with the Pocket PC software; and until I got the Treo 600, I was doing fine with the Palm client too.

But sometime after I installed AIM 1.2 for Palm on my Treo, I began experiencing recurring crashes. These were serious: A soft reboot produced only the Palm OS opening screen flashing on and off, while a hard reboot required hot syncing all my data, after which turning on my Sprint service would cause the device to crash all over again. Not fun.

I finally called a contact at Handspring (now PalmOne) to see if he had any ideas about what could cause the problem. He fingered AOL's AIM client. I was dubious at first--it wasn't even running half the time when the Treo crashed--but he said others had run into the problem. AOL subsequently acknowledged that its current Palm client doesn't work on the Treo 600, but says it is working on a fix.

Verichat to the Rescue

My Handspring contact recommended trying out Verichat, an application developed by a small company called PDAapps. So I removed AIM for Palm from my Treo, installed Verichat 1.83, and fired it up. Voila! Not only did the crashes stop, but all of a sudden I now have access to my buddies on AIM, ICQ, MSN, and Yahoo. It was like having Trillian on my Treo.

Verichat is cool in other ways too, chief among them that you don't actually have to be in the application for it to know that you're online and inform your buddies. This means I can fire it up, switch to another app, and get buzzed when somebody sends me an IM. (My Treo literally does buzz me.)

Verichat isn't perfect. Mysteriously, it doesn't show all my buddies as being online when I know for a fact they are. For example, as I was testing the app for this column I got an IM from someone who even then didn't show up as being online. And I wish that, like Trillian, it would organize my buddies according to my defined groups--colleagues, friends and family, business contacts, and the like.

But PDAapps cofounder Gaurav Banga tells me that some of these issues are addressed in version 2.0, which is on its way. Version 1.90b is already available on the company's Web site, and a brand-new version for Pocket PCs may be live by the time you read this.

Verichat isn't the cheapest IM software around. You can try it out for free for 15 days, after which you must sign up as a subscriber at $25 for the first year and $20 thereafter. However, vendors of some Palm OS-based devices, such as Dana's AlphaSmart, have arranged for longer free trials.

Banga explains that the fees cover not only any new versions of Verichat, but also the costs of the inevitable updates that all third-party IM software developers must supply periodically to keep their products working as the services change their server software. I sympathize, but wish the ongoing costs were lower. Still, for this consummate IM junkie, Verichat is the way to go.

Now that husband of mine has even more reason to fear an IM invasion.

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