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Bitlbee and Rooms: Accessing AIM Chat Rooms from your iPhone

We're a pretty AIM-based blog around these parts. The fact that Weblogs, Inc. is owned by AOL may or may not play a role in that. Regardless, we TUAWians spend a lot of time in AIM chat rooms. The App Store's lack of AOL chat room support has been a real burden when we're out on the road with iPhones.

I was delighted when a recent tweet put me in contact with Björn Teichmann, author of the iPhone IRC application Rooms [iTunes link]. Rooms, claimed Teichmann, could bring AOL chat rooms to our iPhones.

Teichmann sent over a promo code for his app, which normally retails for $1.99, and spent a few hours getting me up to speed on AOL chat rooms using his software. Let me explain: It's not that setting things up ended up being difficult to accomplish, but rather there weren't a lot of clear and available instructions for doing so. What Teichmann worked out over those hours was a somewhat reliable way to access AOL chat rooms via IRC.

Read on to learn more about his solution...

I'll warn you: the initial set up is a little typing-intensive, especially on the iPhone. After that, creating a simple macro using Room's built-in shortcut system transformed my connection work into a few taps. Now, each time I connect, I enter a short phrase (namely /bitty, which is what I called my macro) and I'm (usually) quickly connected to the TUAW team chat room.

Macros in Rooms are called Command Shortcuts. The application settings lets you add as many of these as you like. You enter a shortcut name and the commands it maps to. Typing these into the IRC section using the slash prefix lets the application know to expand the shortcut into a full set of commands. This lets you consolidate frequently entered text into a single phrase.

While I'm mentioning the application's settings, let me add my appreciation for Rooms' flexible font preferences. I have terrible eyesight. So boosting the font size really helped me in using the app. You can choose from all available iPhone fonts (yes, even the dire Zapfino and Marker Felt options) from an 8 to 18 size. That is a welcome feature for a text-intensive app.

Connecting to Bitlbee

BitlBee provides IRC gateways to several instant messaging services. Working with XMPP/Jabber (which includes Google Talk, by the way), AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, the BitlBee server allows you treat an IRC application like an IM client. BitlBee provides the backbone for the AIM Chatrooms on iPhone solution.

You can connect to BitlBee by pointing your IRC server to irc://im.bitlbee.org. You'll be immediately greeted by an BitlBee bot called "root". The bot offers interactive help as well as direct command interpretations. Type help to see the primary introduction or help followed by a command (e.g. help password) for details about a specific option.

Getting Started

To get started, you'll need to register with the BitlBee server, add your AIM account information and bring that account online. Here are the steps you need to take for your initial set up. After that set-up it gets a lot easier.

Start by registering with a password. BitlBee can save your settings so you don't have to re-enter your IM passwords each time you log in. Be aware that IRC is not an especially secure protocol. Take into account that you will transmit any passwords over unencrypted channels. You'll use this password whenever you need to identify yourself with BitlBee.

 register somepassword 

Next, add your AIM account, using the OSCAR protocol and bring the account online.

 account add OSCAR accountname accountpassword account on 0 

Add the named chat room to your gateway and join the room. After you type this in, make sure to wait. It can take up to a minute for the chat room to go live the first time you do this.

 chat add 0 aimchatroom /join &aimchatroom 

These steps represent the majority of the work you ever need to do setting up your IRC client the first time. After you've done so once, later connections become far easier.

Returning to chat rooms

After you've performed your initial set up, it takes just three commands to return to an existing configuration. These commands are as follows. Use the same Bitlbee password you used to register.

identify yourpassword 
account on 0 
/join &aimchatroom 

As I mentioned earlier, I created a command shortcut for this sequence so I would not have to type it in each time I ran the Rooms IRC app. Since Rooms stores a list of known connections, all I need to do is select the Bitlbee server and type the macro name into the text entry field. I'm instantly connected to my AIM chat room. Most of the time.

That's because the Bitlbee service is not always consistent. Although I haven't had any problems ever contacting people directly, the chat rooms support seems to come and go. And it's the chat rooms that I'm really counting on.

Conclusions

If you need to use AIM chat rooms, the Bitlbee/Rooms IRC app works very well when the Bitlbee service accommodates. It gives me the access I need in a configurable, usable client. Like all iPhone applications, Rooms suffers from Apple's one-application-at-a-time policy.

This policy makes checking in with AIM less useful than if I were able to keep running the chat room in the background, a la the way that the official AIM client keeps track of ongoing IM sessions. That's certainly not Rooms' fault, however, and I'm grateful to be able to get as much connection as Rooms and Bitlbee can offer at this time. When working, this solution fills an immediate need for our team and it may help you out as well. When it's not working, I still have access to individual chats.

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