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I was suddenly taken aback the other day when I realised just how many different online communications services I used. I have five email accounts though I actually only use four of them. I have four IM accounts though I only use two of them, and one of those is Facebook Chat. I am registered with five social networks though only use two of them regularly. And then there's Dooyoo as well, which doesn't fall into any of those categories.
So, how do you keep up with all the updates to all of these services? I'm sure I'm not alone in this dilemma. As with many faced with the same problem, I am looking for the perfect solution. My perfect solution is something which is easy to use, not too intrusive, covers as broad a spectrum of services as possible and is portable, in other words, something I can run from a thumb drive.
This last is a habit born of my long-term use of the Thunderbird email client. Yes, all of the email services I use also provide webmail access and, true, you can simply leave all your email "out there". I, however, prefer to remove my email from potentially prying eyes, to Portable Thunderbird, where I can, if required, browse it offline. This, of course, doesn't apply to Hotmail as MS insists on keeping you Hotmail email on its servers, even if you use Windows Live Mail.
My first dalliance with agglomerated services involved just IM and was very much restricted to portable solutions. There are centralised IM services such as eBuddy, which are purely web-based and I'm sure they work very well; my son uses that one at work. I wanted something I could load onto my thumb drive.
I looked at Trillian and it was a reasonable tool, until they upgraded to the latest release, which now uses their central services to consolidate your IM conversations rather than just a local client. I then tried Pidgin (formerly Gaim), which has the advantage of being purely client based but has usability issues I don't like. So, whilst the new Trillian seemed to offer a reasonable compromise (local client accessing Trillian's servers), if that has to be the way to go then why stop there? Why not look for something that consolidates all services, not just IM?
Now, first, before you say, "Ah, but..." yes, I know, Digsby isn't portable... yet. There are several threads on the Digsby Forum about this and the Digsby Developers have said it's something on which they are working. Several interim solutions have been proposed but as yet I have not chosen to try any of them.
Digsby is not the only player in this game. I have come across a web-based service which seeks to achieve the same objective, called Power.com. It seems to be based in Brazil and had Google's Orkut as its first focus. I have tried it but it seems somewhat flaky and immature. Also, Power.com does not offer the option of a local client.
Digsby seeks to bring together into one place your eMail, IM and Social Networks and to keep you posted "instantly" about all of the updates to each. Your starting point is the Digsby website, where you download the client software to your computer. The Home page has a big Download button and clicking this offers you the choice of platform of Apple, Windows and Linux (the link takes you to CNET for your download). Below this you can also click a button to watch a video intro to Digsby.
Part of the install process is that you have to sign up to Digsby for an account with which to manage all the other accounts. So, yet another userid and password to remember! When you fire up the Digsby client you enter this userid and password after it has first done a check to see if there any updates to the client software to download and install. These updates seem to happen on a fairly regular basis, though more about the changes and interaction with the user community later.
The Digsby client puts its icon in your System Tray in the bottom right-hand of your screen (assuming you don't have Autohide on your Task Bar). From here you can either double-click the icon to launch the Buddy List window or else right-click to select such as Preferences. Preferences is probably where you will want to go first, in order to set up the accounts you want to manage.
Account setup requires that you accept that your userid and password for each service will be stored on Digsby's servers so that it can automatically log you on to each. Digsby makes great play about the security surrounding this information. I have been mostly against this in principle but I have to accept that if services like Digsby are to offer the advantages we end users are seeking then its the price we have to pay.
For each service you define to Digsby a new icon for that service is opened in the System Tray. Clicking the icon pops up from immediately above it a window displaying all of the latest updates on that service. The icon itself has a little number in its bottom right-hand corner indicating the number of items in the list. So, for an email service it's the number of unread emails in the Intray; for Twitter it's the number of messages you would see if you logged in native to Twitter itself. The pop-up remains open only so long as you keep the cursor hovering over it; move the cursor away and it vanishes.
Right-clicking the icon offers you an number of other options, some of which will require direct access to the website and will result in it being launched for you by Digsby in you Web Browser of choice. However, some actions such as Delete for an email or Reply for a Twitter Direct Message, for instance, can be done directly from the message entry in the pop-up list.
The one exception to the rule (isn't it always!) is Facebook. When I first started using Digsby it opened a dedicated window to interface to Facebook which was clearly a cut-down Web Browser. I don't know what rendering engine it used; it was very simple and for things like Refresh and Back you had to use the right-click button. The window contents didn't respond to the scroll wheel on the mouse but did to clicking the mouse wheel and moving the cursor relative to the on-screen scroll icon. It would only minimise to the Task Bar, not the System Tray and clicking the "X" closed your Facebook session down.
None of this was very satisfactory and I had raised a couple of issues about it on the Forum on the Digsby website, only to find that with the next client update the Facebook browser had disappeared completely! Now, clicking the Facebook icon in the System Tray pops up a list just as with all the other icons, containing what you would find in the middle section of the page you see when you click Home on the Facebook Menu. Anything else, other than "Set Status", results in the Facebook website being launched for you in your normal browser of choice.
The Facebook Chat facility, though, is different yet again. Your Facebook online chat friends appear along with your other IM contacts in the Buddy List you get by double-clicking the Digsby icon in the System Tray. However, even if you have grouped your Facebook friends, all of the online ones (it only shows online friends) appear under the general heading of "Contacts". Against each is their Facebook profile picture with the little Facebook "f" in the bottom corner, to show that they're on Facebook Chat.
Hovering the cursor over any entry in the Buddy List pops a window out alongside it to give more information about the buddy and access to options such as "Send a Message". Similar options are also available by right-clicking the entry.
Engaging in an IM conversation works pretty much the same way most IM clients work: a separate window opens for the chat, laid out in the conventional way. Opening two conversations at the same time tabs them in the same window with the currently active chat named on the Title Bar at the top of the window. The buddy name there gets changed to add (Typing) alongside it when they are adding chat, which might get missed more easily than where it appears with most other chat clients; small issue! Once again, the chat window minimises to the Task Bar, not the System Tray.
When the chat is on Facebook then if you switch to your Facebook session in your browser you will see the chat repeated in the pop-up chat box in the bottom right-hand corner of the Facebook window.
One thing where Digsby seems to score over other "universal" IM clients is that it appears it supports video chat. I haven't tried this yet but if it works, and I have no reason to suppose it doesn't then this is definitely a one-up to Digsby.
Digsby supports many other services than the ones I have mentioned here. I haven't commented on them because I don't use them. Digsby is pretty flexible in trying to incorporate all of the popular services out-of-the-bag. For instance, I use an email service that is not one of those listed by default. However, there are also POP and IMAP email options, which you can use in order to define your own chosen email service to Digsby.
You can customise Digsby for things like Notifications, so as to just play a tone when something happens or, more usefully, to pop up a small notification window briefly in the bottom left-hand corner of your desktop. Where the notification pop-up is for an IM update, a reply can even be entered in a reply box in it there, so long as you're quick enough to catch it, without even opening the actual chat window itself. You can customise other things as well, such as skinning the interfaces and the layout and design of the Buddy List.
So far I have only been using Digsby a relatively short time but I have to confess it's growing on me. It's not perfect; what is? However, it does do a good job of keeping me up-to-speed with most of what's going on in all of the online services I use, and that is, after all, the object of the exercise.
Most of all, I really would prefer the local Digsby client to be portable so that I can take it with me wherever I go. Hopefully that won't be too long coming. It would also be nice if Digsby really got its Facebook act together. At the moment it's good enough to let me know when most updates occur but I still have to use the proper Facebook interface via my browser in order to do anything really useful.
For email, it will not persuade me to abandon Thunderbird. When clicking on an email identified directly from the service icon in the System Tray, it would be nice if Digsby launched Thunderbird instead of taking me to the service's webmail site, but I can live without that.
For IM, though, it is good enough. It does what it has to do in a fairly efficient manner and that's what I need.
So, I can reservedly recommend Digsby if you are looking for a service of this type. It does appear to be undergoing continual development and so I can only hope that the issues that I find in need of improvement get addressed. You may wish to see other things. Join, as I have, the Digsby Forum and contribute to the discussion. I can't promise that your ideas will be acted upon but, if you don't put your hand up you can't expect to be heard, can you?
UPDATE - Nov 2009
I have discovered through the Digsby Forum that a French guy (madcow41 - http://www.mcsoft.online.fr/madcow/?Ninja-Digsby.html#forum49) has written an application to make Digsby portable. I've installed it on my USB thumb drive and it works a treat. It is batch driven but none the worse for that. At least you know what's going on. Recommended until an official version is produced, assuming I don't die first!
Up to about a year ago I was fairly inexperienced when it came to instant messaging (IM). When I was working IM systems were kept at bay behind a very strong firewall and, when at home with a baby the need to IM didn't seem to be there. I did, however, have several IM handles acquired over the years as a result of fairly unsuccessful dabbling in the world of instant messaging. Then, two things happened, I became a customer of the 3 mobile phone network and my phone allowed me to IM for free and my husband's work relaxed their IT environment to allow IM to be used. Overnight IM became a whole lot more relevant to me.
I started off using Yahoo! Messenger as my preferred platform for no reason other than the fact that that was where I held my main email account. Then a need arose to catch someone with a hotmail address... that required another IM client to be downloaded and an earful from my husband who wanted to know what I got up to all day and why I was clogging up the computer with downloads. Then, a conversation with a very good friend led me to Digsby....
Digsby is now a permanent feature of my computer desktop and a great piece of software. Digsby is straightforward, simple and friendly yet offers a comprehensive functionality that should make the bigger players blush. If you have multiple emails, IMs or memberships of social sites then Digsby is a must.
Available as a free download from http://www.digsby.com the programme is a breeze to install and run, even for technophobes. Digsby, for want of a better description, is a collator or aggregator of IMs, e-mail and social networking data. It's a one-stop-shop that will draw together all of your favourite communications and present them to you in one rather natty window without requiring you to log in and out of the sites all day long just to see whether there is anything new. What's more, you can update your own status' or reply to emails without actually going to the sources themselves!
Digsby will collate IMs from Yahoo! MSN, AOL, Google and AIM. It will collect status updates from Facebook, Twitter and My Space and will allow you to process emails in a single click from all of the major online providers together with IMAP and POP accounts. You'll be able to see, at a glance, which contacts are online across all of the IM platforms.
Once downloaded the programme is a breeze to run (and download for me was very very rapid over a broadband connection). You establish a user name and then import your existing IM clients, email addresses and social networking sites. You will be led, step by step, through the process and by entering your details and passwords you'll have a live feed in a matter of minutes. I've not found any security issues and the integrity of my data is apparently intact at all times.
If you are one of those people for who form is more important than function you'll love Digsby's ability to be personalised. If you enjoy altering the look of your mobile phone you can change the Digsby set up in a similar manner. A variety of skins is available for both the programme and chat windows. You can chose to chat in a pop-up window or in the main window according to your needs (I quite like the pop ups for some tasks but prefer the background window if I'm trying to concentrate). You can chose to auto start the programme or do it manually. You can log your conversations or just forget them. You can choose to log into all or just some of your IM clients. You can even group your contacts and have single point contact for those social butterflies who IM you from a variety of clients. And it's all a breeze.
Personalisation of individual chat messages is, perhaps, not as good as personalisation of the whole programme. If you like to format your messages and, for example, italicise or embolden individual words then you won't manage it here. However, for those who need to convey a tone of voice the ubiquitous smileys are available! If you are used to auto spell correction you won't get it with Digsby (although it does have a spell check so you will be aware of your mistakes)
Lest you think it's all about text you'd be wrong. You can video mail from your account and, in general this seems to work - something that would, no doubt, be handy for those who have family a long way away. One of the other surprising features is the ability to extend Digsby to your social networking sites, not just by collecting the information for you, but also allowing you to place a widget on such sites (or your blog, website etc) to allow chat direct from that platform making Digsby accessible to those who don't have it on their machine.
Digsby appears to be a constantly evolving programme and updates are checked for on every log in. If an update is found the programme will update automatically (although if you are a Vista user you will be prompted to allow the update to occur (unless you've turned that functionality of Vista off)). The other great thing about Digsby is the fact that it is account based. This means that you can have Digsby running on multiple machines without having to go through the whole set up on each one - you just download the application and you're off.
The Digsby website is, in the first few days, a resource not to be underestimated. It will show you far more functionality than you ever thought possible (and far more than I have described) in an easily accessible way. Help screens (both on the site and the programme itself) are universally helpful and easy to follow. I'd probably challenge you to find something about the programme that wasn't easy - it's that simple.
To be honest I'm rather surprised that we don't hear or see more about Digsby. It really packs a punch and makes a web of connections much easier to navigate. I've found the Windows-based platform (it is now available for Linux and Mac) to be very stable and any temporary issues are ironed out very, very quickly. Bearing in mind that I'm not paying for the service, nor am I subjected to adverts, this is remarkable in the extreme. Taking up a mere 15MB this is one application that won't bung up your computer but will allow great functionality.
Once upon a time, I had one IM client (AOL). After a bit, I acquired a couple more AOL addresses. Some time after that, I got myself a yahoo address, and then eventually an IM handle from there. Then googlemail took the world by storm, and with it, another email address and another IM handle. Then msn messenger came with added functionality, including video. So yet ANOTHER email address to check, and another IM program. Facebook came along, with its own updates, and email type messaging. And, to top it all off, we have Twitter, which of course, you want to keep on top of. What's a girl to do?!
For a while, it seemed that Pidgin was the answer. Pidgin allowed me to collect all my IM addresses into one handy program, which sat quietly in my system tray allowing me to see and message folks using different IM clients. I couldn't use video, though, so if I wanted a video chat, I still had to open the relevant client. And, I still had to check all my emails individually, and it didn't even consider the Facebook and Twitter issues.
Then, along came the little friendly green blob that it Digsby. Is he the answer to my prayers? The short answer is oh, yes - indeed he is! You can find him at http://www.digsby.com. There you'll get a very green, friendly and simple home page, telling you what Digsby is good for. There are little sections with screen shots for Instant Messaging, Email Notifications and Social Networking, and your Free Download Button. Just on the front page alone, I learn the various IM clients it supports (including Facebook, yahoo, msn, aol, google and more), where you can get email notifications from (as well as the common web mail clients, it will also look for your IMAP and Pop mail) and which social networking sites it can trawl (facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Myspace).
The Screenshots tab gives you (guess what) screenshots of the various features - you can even have your messages appear as pop ups, which you can reply to from the little pop up, thus allowing you to keep working on whatever you're doing without having to swap windows (me, I don't use that feature, as I prefer not having things pop up - I'm at work - I don't need my boss reading my IMs!). The screenshots page also helpfully tells you that you can combine duplicate contacts (so if you have a contact that also has multiple IM addresses, you can lump them all together as one contact, not worrying which client you are messaging), that you can have different themes, to personalise the look of Digsby and the little chat windows and more.
The features tab gives me yet more information on what I can do with Digsby - which IM, email and Social networking clients I can bung onto it, how you can personalise it, and how you can be even cleverer with widgets and file transfers.
By now, you've surely hit the download now button. You've given yourself a username, and you're ready to start importing your IM clients, email addresses and social networking sites. This is a dawdle. Click on the Digsby menu, and go to My Accounts, and start adding your addresses and your password (don't worry, no-one else can get to those passwords - it's just to allow Digsby to pick up your contacts) in each of the three areas - IM, email and social network, and you're ready to start instant messaging. From the menu you can also change your skin (of both the main program and the chat window) and your options (about pop up windows and the like. You can choose whether you want to log conversations, and if so how. You can choose whether you'd like Digsby to sit in your system tray, and start up when you start your computer.
Unlike with Pidgin, the helpscreens are helpful to even the newest user, complete with screen shots and clear instructions. It tells you how you can sign into and out of Digsby in general, or just of individual accounts. You can also add or block contacts from Digsby, without having to go back to the original IM program - again, the instructions for doing so are simple and well laid out.
There are some very, very cool features. I don't use all of them, but really, I should use more. You can send emails straight from Digsby, without having to visit the email client. You can (and I do) delete, mark as read, or mark as spam emails straight from the info box, again, without having to go into the email client. The help screens are actually a wiki, and there is a community forum as well. Bug reports can be filed, and user feedback is actively encouraged.
Digsby automatically checks for updates each time you login, and will notify you when updates become available. It automatically performs these updates as well, so you don't have to worry about that process. Because you set up a Digsby account upon downloading the software (and, by the way, the download is very quick), you can use Digsby at multiple locations (once you've downloaded the software at each, of course) and it will remember your contacts, clients and preferences, no matter where you set them from.
As always, there are one or two niggles. Video chat doesn't work as easily as it might if only one of you is using Digsby. It can be particularly tricky if your correspondent is using msn - I find it easier to video chat with those folks directly through the msn messenger client. You can't format individual words in a message - only the entire message, so you can't make just a single word bold, for example. Digsby is only available for Windows - it is not currently out there for Mac or Linux, and it's only available in English. You really should read the T&Cs, as you may feel uncomfortable allowing Digsby to use your spare computing power (a la SETI at home) when you are idle - however, you can opt out of this (you can get more information on this here: http://blog.digsby.com/archives/68).
Digsby has a blog you can follow (just go to the help screen once you've installed Digsby and click on Support Digsby) and you can follow them on Twitter. From the website, you can join the forum and submit feedback and bug reports - Digsby are very keen to encourage user participation.
I used to use Pidgin. Now I use Disgby. I truly, madly and deeply cannot recommend Digsby enough. And if that's not a positive review, I'm a Dutch uncle.