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Computing with Bifocals - Nancy's Guide to iChat (and Adium)
by - October 14th, 2005

I recently received a letter from reader Andy Russell who lives in Shanghai China.  It seems that Andy is surrounded by otherwise nice people who insist on using computers from the dark side.  They like to converse using Windows MSN Messenger, but since Andy, being the enlightened one, uses a Mac, he gets left out of all of those conversations.  What if they are talking about him?  What if they have great stock tips?  What if there is a party he needs to know about?  What is a guy to do?

He asked me if he could use the iChat on his Mac to talk to his friends using Windows MSN.  (To use iChat you have to have some version of OS X installed on your Mac.)  I promptly gave him an incorrect answer.  However, we soon worked it out, I learned something new, and now Andy is able to use his Mac to carry on instant messaging with his friends using MSN Messenger.  I'll direct you to a source that tells you how to do it, but first I guess it would be good to cover some of the basics of using iChat for those looking to use Apple's great chat software.

What is iChat?

iChat is a tool for instant messaging.  Users must have an internet connection.  It can also be used for video conferencing, voice chatting (similar to a telephone call), and iSight interactions, but for this discussion I am only going to talk about instant text messaging.  iChat uses the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) network, so each user must get set up with an AIM identity.  It is not necessary to be signed up with AOL or involved with AOL in any other way to use AIM.

Alternately, if you are a .Mac account holder, you can use your .Mac e-mail address as a login.

Get Set Up

The first step is to get a screen name.

  • Choose iChat > Preferences > Accounts.
  • Enter a screen name of your choosing.  (Each name must be unique so if you choose a name already in use you will be asked to choose another name(s) until a unique name is selected.)
Note:  Individuals with .Mac accounts follow slightly different directions for selecting iChat screen names and those so affected should follow the directions provided by the .Mac account instructions.

Add a Picture Next To Your Name

A picture or an icon next to your name is not required, but is a nice touch and it will show up next to your name in all your friends Buddy Lists unless they have turned off this option.  (Buddy Lists are covered below.) You can use a real photo of yourself, an icon of your choosing, or choose from the file icons provided.  If you don't choose one, a default one of the running AOL figure will be assigned.

  • Choose Buddies > Change My Picture
If you are adding an image or an icon, drag and drop it into the window as directed.  Note:  You will have to work with your image to reduce the size before attempting to add it to your list.  The Buddy List option will not automatically adjust the size for you.  You have some options with the slide bar located below the image box, but not much.  Images can be adjusted within iPhoto if you don't have a graphic application or, are not comfortable using one yet.  If this sounds too complicated then don't get hung up on it.  Just pick from the standard choices.  You can change your picture as many times as you wish so you can come back to this whenever you want to play around with it.


To use iChat you have to know the screen name of the person with whom you wish to chat.   You will have to get this information from them ahead of time before you can chat for the first time.  To contact someone for a chat you would:

  • Choose iChat > File > New Chat With Person
A field will open, letting you enter the screen name of the person you wish to contact.  This is the same technique you would use to invite someone new to join a chat in progress.  Once you enter the screen name and click OK, you can begin a message.  If the person is not on-line, you will get an error message.

There is a much easier way to contact your friends and to know instantly if someone is on line.  That is to create a Buddy List.

Buddy List

Most people who use iChat choose to create a Buddy List composed of those with whom they communicate frequently.    It also means you don't have to memorize screen names.  To add a name to your Buddy List:

  • Choose iChat > Buddies > Add a Buddy
  • Follow the directions for adding a buddy
Your Buddy list will show whole names.  I have modified this example for obvious reasons.  The telephone symbol next to my name and Fred's name indicates that we have activated the ability to have a live phone chat.   The red buttons indicate that the people are on-line, but not really available for an iChat discussion.  I could, however, send them a message that they could read later.  If they were actively in iChat, the buttons would be green.  When a name is grayed out, the person is not on line at all.

Now, all I have to do to communicate with any one on this list with a green, yellow, or red button by their name is double click on their name and an instant message window instantly opens.  There is an example of a communication window under the discussion about adding Smiley faces.

Add a File, Smiley, or Hyperlink to a Message

While communicating using iChat, you have the option of attaching smiley faces, hyperlinks (internet addresses), or files to your instant communications.  To do so:

If an instant message is not already in progress begin one by double clicking on the name in your buddy list and initiating a conversation.

Choose Edit then choose the appropriate Insert Smiley, Attach File, or Add Hyperlink.  If you select attach a file, a finder window will open, letting you select the file or document that you want to attach.  It works just like an email attachment works. 

You can also choose a Smiley by clicking on the small grayed out smiley icon in the far right of the text box and click on the one you want to use.  You can copy and paste hyperlinks or text directly into the text box as well.

In my text window I have chosen to make the incoming message type font larger than the outgoing font.  In theory I should be able to remember what I said, but I need to actually be able to READ what the sender is saying.  That means a font size larger than a pencil point.  To set the font size, color, etc.:

  •     Choose iChat > Preferences > Messages
Then just set the preferences to suit your own needs.

iChat is really easy to use.  I have seen people (under the age of 25 usually) carry on several iChat "conversations" at once.  I can type that fast; I just can't think that fast any more.   Remember you can involve more than one person at a time in the same chat.  Anyway, try instant messaging if you are interested.

Now about Andy's issue about chatting with people who don't use Macs.

One answer, although not the best one, is to use Jabber.  You have to have Tiger installed to be able to do this.  Realizing that Mac users might want to be able to chat with people using other platforms, Apple added Jabber support to iChat with the introduction of Tiger.  Jabber is a decentralized network that works similarly to email servers.  Anyone can download the Jabber server application.  You can have more than one Jabber account and, indeed, you have to have separate accounts for different platforms.

There a great web site that walks you through the steps necessary to set up a Jabber account that lets you iChat to chat on MSN Messenger's network.  There are several steps, but the author of this page, Melvin Rivera of Los Angeles, California,  is my kind of guy.  He includes clear directions and lots of pictures.  There are also a number of reader questions at the end of the article that have come in since the article was written that seem to address any small problems that may occur.  Here is the web site.

I walked through the steps and set up an account for myself.  It took about 45 minutes to do it because there are a number of steps and I had to read some of the directions more than once to make sure I understood them.   Be sure and write down your ID and password information.  These IDs are not names that will be easy to remember.  Andy reported problems using the Jabber connections though.  He kept getting disconnected in the middle of conversations.  You also have to sign out of AIM and sign on to Jabber to use it.

A better solution I think is a new application, still in beta format (meaning still being developed and tested somewhat), called Adium.  This is donation software.  You can download and use it for free, but the author requests donations to support the development if you like what you see and choose to use it on a regular basis.  It took about 5 minutes to get completely set up using Adium.  First I downloaded the Adium software.  Then I had to go to MSN and create an MSN account.  Here are the steps.

To get the Adium software go to and select Download.

Then click on the Support and Development tab at the top.  From there choose Creating Accounts from the menu on the right side of the window.

Link To Setting Up Accounts
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

This page gives you explicit directions plus gives you links for signing up for a MSN Messenger account among other options.  Once you have your MSN Messenger account ID you can open Adium on your computer and get set up for the first time.

The same Adium page that gave the link for setting up accounts contains directions for adding your account to Adium, but you really don't need them.  When Adium opens it knows you are using it for the first time and walks you through the process.

MSN will not allow you to add buddies (called Contacts in Adium) until the person has given their permission.  This is handled automatically for you.  If the person you are trying to add is not on-line at the time you are trying to add them, the request will stay on hold until they are available to approve or disapprove. 

The Adium Contacts window is different from the iChat Buddies window in that names only show up when the person is on-line.  Otherwise the windows look remarkably alike, making it easy to remember what to do.

This won't be something that every beginner will want to jump in and try, but for those of you who really want to be able to instant message with MSN users it will be worth the effort.  Meanwhile, a special thanks to Andy Russell who started out asking for help with a problem and ended up solving it himself and then sharing the solution with me so I could pass it on.  I love Mac users.

Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.

Post your comments below.

Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.

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