log in | register | forums
Show:
Go:
Forums
Username:

Password:

User accounts
Register new account
Forgot password
Forum stats
List of members
Search the forums

Advanced search
Recent discussions
- Elesar brings back Font Directory Pro for modern machines (News:9)
- AMCS free versions are live! (Gen:9)
- Elesar updates Font Directory Pro to 3.21 (News:)
- Disappearing websites (News:)
- What development tools do we need ported to RISC OS (News:6)
- Help getting RPCEmu working on a MacBook (Gen:9)
- What software updates would like to see at the next show? (News:6)
- RC15 bring RISC OS to any Raspberry Pi (News:3)
- Latest Drag'n'Drop magazine reviewed (News:)
- Wakefield 2017 Show Report (News:4)
Related articles
- Iyonix: first birthday review
- Wakefield 2003 - the preview
- Elesar's new Cloud Storage software
- Mail client Pluto updated, open-sourced
- An arbitrary number of possibly influential RISC OS things
- RISC OS - the week in comments; episode 3
- NetSurf Update
- Firefox released for RISC OS 5 [Updated]
- Wakefield 2006 show report
- RISC OS South East Show 2005
Latest postings RSS Feeds
RSS 2.0 | 1.0 | 0.9
Atom 0.3
Misc RDF | CDF
Site Search
 
Article archives
Acorn Arcade forums: News and features: Freeware instant messaging client released
 

Freeware instant messaging client released

Posted by Michael Drake on 22:30, 14/9/2007 | , , ,
 

Parmesan is a new client for the popular MSN Messenger network, developed by Christian Ludlam. Released as freeware, the software brings new features to instant messaging on RISC OS. Chief among these are display pictures and nudges. The software also doubles as a versatile viewer for arbitrary XML files.

RISC OS has seen the release of several MSN Messenger clients over the years; two free clients (Natter and Messenger) and R-Comp's commercial product, Grapevine. A few years ago all of these clients fell foul of an upgrade to the MSN protocol which stopped RISC OS users from being able to connect to the chat network. To many users' dismay, RISC OS was left without a free MSN Messenger client, as only Grapevine was upgraded to support the new protocol.

Happily, this distressing situation has, at last, been rectified with the release of Parmesan. In this article I'll take a look at Parmesan describe my experience of it. Finally, as a Grapevine owner, I will compare Parmesan with the commercial Grapevine application.

Signing in

Parmesan was first announced less than a fortnight ago on the Zap technical mailing list, in a call for beta testers. I responded and have been running it ever since. When first run Parmesan presents the user with a simple dialogue box enabling the MSN account details to be entered and lets the user sign in for the first time (figure 1).

Figure 1
"Sign in" dialogue box (RiscPC, running Select 3)

It looks as though Parmesan can cope with multiple users' MSN accounts although I have not tested this myself. Signing in is extremely straightforward and I was quickly presented with a list of my friends; online and offline (figure 2).

Features I like

It is immediately apparent when you start using Parmesan that a lot of thought has gone into the user interface. Looking very much in sympathy with the RISC OS desktop's general design paradigms, it is extremely clean and intuitive. It is uncluttered and has no unnecessary or confusing buttons and toolbars.

Figure 2
Friends window on RISC OS 5

The other thing that struck me when I first signed in was that the software supported "display images", which are little icons, individual to each user. Parmesan is, to my knowledge, the first RISC OS MSN Messenger client to support the feature. Initially, users are given the Parmesan cheese icon as their display image. It very simple to change the image and I soon had a little drawing of a car, created in ArtWorks, as my display picture.

Nudges allow people to attract the attention of the person they are conversing with, by bringing your chat session back to their attention. It is of particular use if your communication is urgent. The chat window (figure 3) has a pane to the side of it which shows your correspondent's display picture and offers two buttons. One of the buttons is for selecting a graphical emoticon and other lets you give your friend a nudge.

Figure 3
The chat window

When I first discovered that Parmesan supported nudges I was a little dubious because I generally dislike things that interfere with my desktop. After experimenting with the feature, I can report that it has been implemented pretty nicely. When you are nudged by a friend, the chat window is brought to the front of the window stack and given a little shake. In my experience, this succeeds in drawing attention to the window without interfering too much with the desktop. The nudged window does not steal input focus, so you can continue typing into another window on the desktop as you receive a nudge. It might be nice to have the option to disable the feature, especially if you suffer any particularly enthusiastic friends.

The text input box at the bottom of chat windows is a multi-line text area. This means that there is plenty of room to read over what you've typed in a long message. It also lets you send multi-line messages. Pressing the return key sends the message, while shift+return starts a new line within the same message.

I very much like Parmesan's whole interface. It takes a few liberties here and there, such as not using the standard RISC OS window resize furniture, however Parmesan manages to pull it off without jarring with my delicate sensibilities. The content of the windows, such as the friends list, is well layed out and has quite a polished look.

Parmesan has very advanced configuration functionality. All of the things Parmesan displays, such as the friends list and chat conversations are represented internally in XML format and they way they are displayed is governed by CSS files. This makes it very easy to restyle the the way conversations are shown. For example, if you want to adjust the gap between successive messages in chat windows you can change the value of the margin-top property for the message class in the Chat CSS file.

Things Parmesan doesn't do (yet?)

File transfer is high on Christian's TODO list. I'm told that it works at the moment but there is no front end for the feature so it is disabled by default.

Once you've set up a personal display picture, if you try Parmesan on another computer you need to set the display picture again, because it is not stored on the server. I am told that it is possible to store your picture on the server with later versions of the MSN protocol.

Parmesan in action on a VirtualRPC powered laptop

The MSN Messenger protocol allows for hand drawn messages to be sent, as well as text messages. Parmesan supports the display of hand drawn messages but does not yet cater for sending them. A screenshot showing Parmesan displaying a hand drawn message is available on the Parmesan site's screenshot page.

There are several other rival instant messaging networks, for example ICQ. Only the MSN Messenger protocol is supported supported by Parmesan. This is no issue for me as all my friends use MSN Messenger.

Beyond instant messaging

Aside from being a perfectly good MSN Messenger client Parmesan is also a useful application to have at hand, even if you have no interest in instant messaging. It can be used to display any XML files you might have. Dragging an XML file to the Parmesan iconbar icon causes it to display the XML file's contents raw. If you then drag a suitable CSS file to the XML window it is styled neatly.

By default, Parmesan logs conversations in Choices:Parmesan.Accounts.n.History. The old conversations are stored in XML format so they can be used to demonstrate Parmesan's XML display functionality. If you drag an XML file to Parmesan, it is opined in a new window. If you then drag the Chat CSS file stored at !Parmesan.Styles.Chat to the new window, you will see the conversation styled as it was originally, when the conversation first happened.

Parmesan vs Grapevine

I've owned Grapevine since it was first released. Unlike Parmesan it supports multiple chat networks; MSN Messenger, ICQ and IRC. I originally bought it for its MSN Messenger functionality and it introduced me to IRC, which I now use daily via another client. ICQ support was added later but I have never used it. It is clear that Grapevine offers support for more chat networks than Parmesan, but how do they compare on the common ground – as a MSN Messenger client?

Figure 4
Grapevine's interface

I'll start with the user interfaces. Grapevine's interface (see figure 4) is very bright and colourful with lots of buttons to click on. Sadly it has never been quite to my taste. I feel it tries too hard to look snazzy and ends up looking confused, sticks out like a sore thumb and generally seems a little vulgar. Some of its buttons just seem unnecessary, e.g. opening menus that are already available though the normal RISC OS style menu. I very much prefer the simple interface style of Parmesan which looks far more at home on RISC OS.

In terms of actually using the programs, they both behave pretty similarly although it is obvious that Parmesan has had a little more thought put into its interface. For example, Parmesan sorts the friends who are online and offline into alphabetical order; allowing you to find them easily. Normally I wouldn't even notice this but having been a Grapevine user I had been used to Grapevine's baffling ordering. Also, when chatting to friends, the multi-line text area of Parmesan is a far more comfortable message editing environment than Grapevine's single line text entry box. It is easier to read over a long message before sending and isn't such a rigmarole to edit multi-line messages.

Grapevine does have a few strengths to its interface that aren't matched in the first release of Parmesan. If you want to send a similar message to a previous one, for example to change part of a long URL, Grapevine allows you to press the up cursor key to fill the text area with a previously typed message. Parmesan lacks this convenient feature. Also, Grapevine chat windows take input focus when the mouse is clicked over the main content area, showing the conversation. In Parmesan, users must click in the text area to give the conversation window input focus.

Grapevine also has a useful feature that allows users to set their own display names for each of their contacts. This is a helpful feature if all your friends are in the habit of repeatedly changing their names to a variety of catch phrases and quotes, leaving you unable to keep track of who anyone actually is.

As far as supporting features of the MSN Messenger protocol go, Parmesan is, in my view, a whisker ahead. Its support for display pictures, nudges and even display of hand drawn messages is not yet matched by Grapevine. On the other hand, Grapevine supports file transfers (although my own successes with this has been limited), while Parmesan's current partial support is disabled.

In the stability, reliability and dependability stakes, it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I have had Parmesan for over a week and a half and I've been running it almost constantly, on a variety of RISC OS computers. It has never crashed or acted up on me – by failing to connect or disconnecting without telling me, etc – however I'd need a few months to be sure it's rock solid.

Grapevine has had a few ups and downs over the years with reliability. This is due, in part, to enforced updates to the MSN protocol, which locked Grapevine users out until an upgrade appeared. However, there have been other connection problems as well. Currently, I find Grapevine's reliability is at a bit of a low ebb – occasionally it fails to connect, stops telling me people are talking to me, stops sending my messages or stops updating the list of who's online or offline. These problems can be overcome by disconnecting and reconnecting once you begin to suspect something is amiss. However, the issues left me a bit nonplussed and resulted in me using Grapevine much less over the last year or so. Judging from the Grapevine mailing list and my chats with other users, these problems plague some people but other Grapevine users get along without any problems.

Conclusion

Well, I have to say I think Parmesan is awesome. It surprised me when the beta version was announced and I was very keen to test it. I am really happy with its general appearance and think the interface was designed with great skill. I like the display pictures feature and have found it stable and reliable so far. Parmesan has not been off my iconbar since I downloaded the beta and it was soon added to the "run on startup" lists on my computers. It is clear that there there are more features that can be added to Parmesan and that the interface could be improved a smidgen here and there but Parmesan is already an extremely useful and pleasant to use application. I can't wait for the next release.

Links


 
  Freeware instant messaging client released
  andypoole (23:36 14/9/2007)
  epistaxsis (22:13 17/9/2007)
    pvigay (07:40 21/9/2007)
      pvigay (07:41 21/9/2007)
        andypoole (10:01 21/9/2007)
          adamr (10:20 25/9/2007)
            tlsa (11:27 25/9/2007)
              andypoole (11:40 25/9/2007)
                adamr (11:56 25/9/2007)
                  Phlamethrower (12:05 25/9/2007)
                    john (22:01 26/9/2007)
                      Mart (22:12 16/12/2007)
                        mentat (20:45 8/7/2008)
                          glavallin (20:46 9/11/2009)
                            Phlamethrower (21:15 9/11/2009)
                            Acornut (22:01 9/11/2009)
                              Phlamethrower (22:10 9/11/2009)
                                Phlamethrower (22:41 10/11/2009)
                                  Acornut (12:32 7/1/2010)
                                    Lampi (12:42 7/1/2010)
                                  Acornut (14:35 7/2/2010)
                                    Phlamethrower (14:42 7/2/2010)
                                      Acornut (08:47 9/3/2010)
 
Andrew Poole Message #104433, posted by andypoole at 23:36, 14/9/2007

Posts: 5552
Whee, fame.. Even if I was downstairs when prodded to say something impressive for the screenshot...

I had a quick play with Parmesan earlier and I have to say it was very nice to use as well as blending into the desktop much nicer and being more stable than Grapevine was on my RiscPC. IMHO it's the nicest IM client to use under RISC OS so far. smile

Andy.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
keith dunlop Message #104465, posted by epistaxsis at 22:13, 17/9/2007, in reply to message #104433
epistaxsis

Posts: 159
After finally sorting out the usual toolbox issues with RO5 conclusion is - Oooh Shiney big big grin

Very nice work - lets hope this client doesn't suffer the same issues that grapevine has with file transfer on MSN and IRC...
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Paul Vigay Message #104517, posted by pvigay at 07:40, 21/9/2007, in reply to message #104465

Posts: 200
Oooh yes. Very nice it is too - and I used it for a whole evening without it crashing! In itself not conclusive of its reliability, but I don't think I've ever used Grapevine for an entire evening without at least one crash.
I agree that it would be very nice to be able to add your own 'sensible' names for people, rather than have all the silly, and quite lengthy, names some people give themselves, but other than that, it's already my MSN client of choice. smile
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Paul Vigay Message #104518, posted by pvigay at 07:41, 21/9/2007, in reply to message #104517

Posts: 200
And Pooley, what's with the avatar? You taken up crop circle design....? wink
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Andrew Poole Message #104521, posted by andypoole at 10:01, 21/9/2007, in reply to message #104518

Posts: 5552
And Pooley, what's with the avatar? You taken up crop circle design....? wink
No. It's the original logo of Epcot.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Adam Message #104565, posted by adamr at 10:20, 25/9/2007, in reply to message #104521
Member
Posts: 112
All the images are broken here and have been since the article was published. Any chance of seeing them?

Adam
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Michael Drake Message #104567, posted by tlsa at 11:27, 25/9/2007, in reply to message #104565

Posts: 1093
All the images are broken here and have been since the article was published. Any chance of seeing them?

Adam
They're hosted on the PicoDrive site because I can't FTP TIB. Maybe somone else could stick them on TIB somewhere and I'll update the links. The images should work anyway, though. The PicoDrive site doesn't block hotlinking, afaik.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Andrew Poole Message #104568, posted by andypoole at 11:40, 25/9/2007, in reply to message #104567

Posts: 5552
All the images are broken here and have been since the article was published. Any chance of seeing them?

Adam
They're hosted on the PicoDrive site because I can't FTP TIB. Maybe somone else could stick them on TIB somewhere and I'll update the links. The images should work anyway, though. The PicoDrive site doesn't block hotlinking, afaik.
I've put the images on TIB and have updated the article to use these instead of the PicoDrive site ones.

Andy.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Adam Message #104569, posted by adamr at 11:56, 25/9/2007, in reply to message #104568
Member
Posts: 112
Thanks, they're showing now smile
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #104570, posted by Phlamethrower at 12:05, 25/9/2007, in reply to message #104569
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15054
*makes ten-millionth mental note to overhaul the image uploader thingy for news monkeys*
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
John D Message #104593, posted by john at 22:01, 26/9/2007, in reply to message #104570
Member
Posts: 261
Hmm.. looks like I picked a bad time to sell my copy of grapevine then! However since I already ebayed my iyonix it seemed a little silly not to ebay the rest of my acorn stuff smile
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Martin Wynn Message #105705, posted by Mart at 22:12, 16/12/2007, in reply to message #104593
Member
Posts: 8
Parmesan is now at version 1.10 (as of 18 Nov) and now does File Transfer. w00t (the in word so I am informed...)
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
[mentat] Message #107809, posted by mentat at 20:45, 8/7/2008, in reply to message #105705
AA refugee
Posts: 20
Still at version 1.30 (25-Feb-2008 ) and still does lots of stuff.

Surely time for another update Christian!

Chop chop...
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Geoff Lavallin Message #111887, posted by glavallin at 20:46, 9/11/2009, in reply to message #107809
Member
Posts: 39
Link in article not working, has the site moved elsewhere?
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #111891, posted by Phlamethrower at 21:15, 9/11/2009, in reply to message #111887
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15054
Nobody knows! Chris's other site, http://sudden.recoil.org/ (home of StrongHelp) is down as well. I've just emailed him, so hopefully we'll get an answer soon.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Blind Moose Message #111893, posted by Acornut at 22:01, 9/11/2009, in reply to message #111887
Acornut No-eye-deer (No Idea)

Posts: 487
Link in article not working...
He is also a maintainer HERE if you want to email him.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #111894, posted by Phlamethrower at 22:10, 9/11/2009, in reply to message #111893
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15054
Well spotted - I'll try getting him through that address as well just in case his @recoil.org address is down as well.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #111921, posted by Phlamethrower at 22:41, 10/11/2009, in reply to message #111894
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15054
Christian says it's just a temporary outage while they move some hardware around - both sudden.recoil.org and parmesan.recoil.org should be back soon enough!
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Blind Moose Message #112701, posted by Acornut at 12:32, 7/1/2010, in reply to message #111921
Acornut No-eye-deer (No Idea)

Posts: 487
move some hardware around
What happened? Did they drop it? wink
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
James Lampard Message #112702, posted by Lampi at 12:42, 7/1/2010, in reply to message #112701
Lampi

Posts: 190
Still down. unhappy
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Blind Moose Message #113265, posted by Acornut at 14:35, 7/2/2010, in reply to message #111921
Acornut No-eye-deer (No Idea)

Posts: 487
back soon enough!
It's obviously VERY heavy hardware, and they have dropped it , and it's got broken.Crybaby
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Jeffrey Lee Message #113266, posted by Phlamethrower at 14:42, 7/2/2010, in reply to message #113265
PhlamethrowerHot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot Hot stuff

Posts: 15054
I've just given him another poke via email - let's see what happens!
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 
Blind Moose Message #113627, posted by Acornut at 08:47, 9/3/2010, in reply to message #113266
Acornut No-eye-deer (No Idea)

Posts: 487
.. another poke ...!
What did you use? tongue
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
 

Acorn Arcade forums: News and features: Freeware instant messaging client released