Article updated 10/17/08 at 8:45 am PT to include more services.
Like most of you, I prefer to instant message with friends on all my networks for free. However, in a time when the instant-messaging applications preloaded on mobile phones are more about dividing and conquering than coming together, three IM-only add-on programs make a strong case for shelling out a few dollars. Stick around to read up on totally free chatting with two apps primarily targeted to VoIP users--Fring and EQO. In the meantime, we'll check out Mundu IM, BeejiveIM, and IM+ All-in-One-Messenger, all multinetwork-IM applications that have emerged as effective, stable, and surprisingly advanced options. Since no one application is consistently feature-rich or attractive across all mobile operating systems, it will take some sleuthing and analysis to determine which one's best for your smartphone.
Networks: AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MySpace, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo
Trial length: 7 days
Cost: $30-$40 lifetime license
Platforms: BlackBerry, iPhone and iPod Touch, J2ME, Palm, Symbian, Symbian UIQ, Windows Mobile Smartphone, and Pocket PC
IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger has been around the longest and has demanded the highest price. It also has, for some platforms, the most advanced features. For all platforms, it supports emoticons, status messages, alerts, notifications, and multiple languages, has customizable settings, and is capable of running in the background. This list is also common to BeejiveIM and Mundu IM.
On BlackBerry, the latest version of IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger ($30) lets you take photos on the fly and IM them to friends. You can perform a similar trick with voice messages you record through the application. There's also a built-in translator and an SMS credit service, which sells text messages for 5 cents apiece to most countries; this will be a perk for some. Unfortunately, it lacks a way to bounce among open conversations; and the emoticons should be easily accessed from the chat window, not just the menu system.
The Windows Mobile versions look almost wholly unrelated to their BlackBerry cousin. There's a Today screen plug-in we like that summarizes your online status and unread messages, and support for tabbed conversation windows that makes tracking multiple conversations simple. The new capability for Windows Mobile phones to log onto IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger without the program logging you off any other running chat application is also commendable.
However, the file transferring and multimedia messaging is absent. While there are understandably hardware and firmware limitations, the program strangely costs $10 more. The Nokia and Sony Ericsson versions of IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger are also $30 and add landscape mode and file transferring. The service offers basic, but solid, multinetwork chatting for the Palm operating system.
While there are arguably better value options for the Windows Mobile devices and Palm, IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger makes a convincing choice for BlackBerry, Symbian, and iPhone operating systems, the latter of which is currently completely free.
Networks: AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo
Trial length: 5 days
Cost: $11 lifetime license
Platforms: BlackBerry, Palm, Sony Ericsson, Windows Mobile Smartphone, and Pocket PC; iPhone-optimized site
Mundu IM is the baby of the three, and also the least expensive, with an $11 lifetime license fee. It's also got the stingiest trial length (a mere 5 days), so don't try it unless you're feeling chatty. Like IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger, Mundu IM's offerings and visual appeal vary by operating system. Its look is bright and fun, while managing to maintain order.
Beyond the basic customizations, status messages, and emoticons, Mundu IM is the most impressive on Palm and on both Windows Mobile platforms.
On these devices, it boasts the capability to archive chats, ping you with e-mail notifications, transfer files and photos, and "conference" a group of pals into a single chat window. Sony Ericsson and BlackBerry users can conference chat, but cannot transfer media, receive e-mail alerts, or save their chat history. There is, however, a search bar to quickly select contacts from a long list. We're less excited about Mundu's penchant for stealthily advertising itself to buddies in chats they receive.
Mundu IM for iPhone (beta) is an optimized Web site, so don't attempt loading it from the App Store. It's restricted to integration with Yahoo, Windows Live Messenger, AIM, and Google Talk, and to basic chatting functions, but it looks great and is currently free.
At $11, Mundu offers the best deal of the three in chatting, though financial concerns aside, it's a better all-around application for Windows Mobile and iPhone users than it is for BlackBerry owners. It doesn't have the race won yet, though; BeejiveIM is also a tough contender.
Networks: AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MySpace, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo
Trial length: 30 days
Cost: $20 single-device; $30 lifetime license on BlackBerry; $16 for iPhone
Platforms: BlackBerry, iPhone and iPod Touch, Windows Mobile for Smartphones, and Pocket PC (beta)
BeejiveIM (formerly JiveTalk) has a good range of features and a compelling format. In addition to multilanguage support, status updates, emoticons, and notifications, BeejiveIM can call, e-mail, and send BlackBerry PIN messages as the protocols allow. You can view chat history and, uniquely, mail it to yourself for safekeeping. Group chatting is supported, and there's limited file transferring on BlackBerry via AIM and Windows Live Messenger. So far, it'll only work on phones in the 8100, 8300, and 8800 series.
While BeejiveIM's BlackBerry application may not have all the bells and whistles of the others, it does have an intuitive format that's easy on the eye. For instance, you can click the icons floating at the top of the screen to switch among conversation windows, and in the preference window, you can select one of eight design treatments for your chat bubbles.
BeejiveIM for Windows Mobile phones is free at the moment, which is the good news. It's running a beta build, though, so some bugs are to be expected.
BeejiveIM's decision to charge $16 for the iPhone application is questionable. While the iPhone application is attractive, it doesn't yet support emoticons, group chatting, or full hyperlink support. In contrast, Palringo, MunduIM, and IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger are all free, and Palringo offers voice and picture messaging and drop-in emoticons.
As mentioned above, there is another way to chat with friends on multiple networks completely free. Fring and EQO are two VoIP-focused applications that sell cheap international calling, but they also throw in chatting for free among many networks, among them Windows Live Messenger, ICQ, Google Talk, Twitter, AIM, and Yahoo. Fring has also recently introduced file-sharing. Fring is not available yet for BlackBerry, but it is strong on most of the other devices, including Symbian, iPhone, Windows Mobile, and mass market phones.
EQO works similarly, giving away chatting and charging competitive rates for international calls. EQO includes Jabber in its chatting lineup and is also available on BlackBerry in addition to LGs, Nokias, Samsungs, and so on.
Hopefully Fring and EQO's free services will put the press on these other very good applications to lower prices or devise other revenue streams to support free chatting.
In the end, your choice comes down to which applications are compatible with your operating system and how involved a chatter (or talker) you intend to be. For instance, BlackBerry users will get more advanced features out of IM+ All-in-One Mobile Messenger, but if you're looking for chatting basics, MunduIM becomes the better deal, even Fring or EQO. However, if you're interested in a chat-only app, BeejiveIM's chatting logic and appealing interface may still keep it in the running, especially if you give yourself all 30 days of the trial period to get hooked. Give one or more of them a try, then let us know what you liked, loved, or hated.
Ready, chatters? Go!