I like to use aMSN, a free alternative to the popular MSN Messenger (MSN for short) software. Since I'm interested in the usability of computer applications, I thought it would be educational to investigate the reasons why I prefer aMSN over regular MSN. So, I took a bit of time this afternoon and went through the features of both applications and my findings are summarized in the following table (note that I explored the features that are available upon a default installation - hence, no plugins were sought to increase functionality).
|aMSN 0.95||MSN Messenger 7.5|
|can provide aliases for users on contact list||Yes||No|
|user interface is skinnable||Yes||No|
|source code is readily available||Yes||No|
|can disable annoying animated emoticons||No*||Yes|
|can group multiple chat conversations into one window as a set of tabs||Yes||No|
|can provide a custom away status message||Yes||No|
|can disable receiving display pics of other users||Yes||Yes|
|can specify default behavior to open windows/links with one mouse click||Yes||No|
|can enable/disable flickering of open chat window with an incoming unread message||Yes||No|
|contains no ads at the bottom of the main window||Yes||No|
|can ignore other users' fonts and specify to use your fonts||Yes||No|
|can specify the browser to open web links in chat messages||Yes*||No|
|window does not return to normal size during a resize process||No||Yes|
|Does not crash on Windows startup||No||Yes|
|supports multiple instant messaging protocols||No||No|
I think the table is fairly self-explanatory, but to be more clear, I shall elaborate on a few points. While MSN Messenger allows custom backgrounds and emoticons to be used, the user interface of the main window itself is not skinnable. aMSN on the other hand is completely skinnable - in fact, there are many skins available on its website. Right now I am using the Ubuntu skin, although the default one is nice too.
In terms of being an open-source application, this is an advantage for aMSN because end users want to be able to program their own features, right? Well, not really - if technically inclined, an end user certainly has this opportunity. However, it is a benefit to non-technical users because open-source applications are typically not driven to meet business needs (i.e. sales). As a result, user suggestions are often sought and incorporated. As business deadlines are not the prime motivator, developers take their time before publishing a release - the philosophy being that the software "will be ready when it is ready" (I believe aMSN 0.95 became available one year after version 0.94). Thus, many open source programs (eg Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice) strive to be usable and minimal in faults (aka bugs). And these are good things for all end users.
Thirdly, MSN Messenger flickers an open chat window excessively until the user acknowledges its presence and clicks the window to give it focus. I use a large screen resolution and I like to keep open chat windows to the side of other open applications, such as a web browser. So if I am surfing the web and my buddy sends me a message, I am visually distracted from my current task and must stop to address the incoming message. This is not good - bad usability MSN! aMSN on the other hand exhibits the same behavior by default; however, there is an option in the preferences to disable such behavior. Good usability aMSN!
Finally, the last thing that aMSN provides over MSN is its ability to use a browser other than Internet Explorer (IE). If a friend sends me a link in a message, I would prefer that it uses my default browser to open the web page. I found no such capability within MSN. However, while aMSN does provide this feature, it does so in an indirect manner. In MS Windows, one can specify the default browser to use - so aMSN will consult MS Windows for the default browser. However, there is an option window in aMSN where by one can specify the browser to use; so I typed in "iexplore" to use Internet Explorer, but aMSN did NOT invoke IE when I clicked a link in a chat message. It would appear that this is a software fault (bug). So good/bad aMSN on this point.
As an extension to the previous point, it has been shown that aMSN is not perfect and 100% superior to MSN. Indeed, I discovered other quirks, which are seen in the last 3 rows of the above table. For instance, a really annoying one concerns a resize operation - often, while resizing the aMSN main window (or even a chat window), the software will "flash" and restores itself to its previous size before you have a chance to release the mouse (to signal the new desired size). So it is often the case that you need to try and resize the window numerous times before being successful - likely another bug.
Finally, aMSN will not start automatically upon a Windows login. A non-obvious and not very informed error message is presented - from this window, there is no indication that it is aMSN that has caused the error! Thus, aMSN must be manually started by clicking on the desktop icon - a minor inconvenience.
There, all done! I hope that has given a nice overview of why I prefer aMSN over MSN Messenger. If you are looking for an instant messaging program that is a little easier to use, why not give aMSN a try? I think you will be pleasantly surprised.