Review: Meebo Instant Messaging

by Gerry Blackwell

This Web-based IM service tames the tangle of multiple IM programs and lets you communicate freely.

Meebo may sound like the title of the next animated Pixar flick, but this free Web-based instant messaging aggregator may solve an annoying problem for many small-business people.

Spam is slowly killing e-mail as an effective business tool. If you have to get on the phone with the other person to ensure your message arrived and didn’t get dumped into a spam box, e-mail becomes a far less useful medium.

Instant messaging (IM), which has been moving from the consumer realm to the business world for several years now, offers an alternative that solves the spam problem.

It does come with some issues of its own, however, which is where Meebo comes in and solves at least some of them.

The Big Problem

There are umpteen different public IM services you could use – from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, AOL, ICQ, Facebook, MySpace, etc. – and for the most part they can’t talk to each other.

If you sign up for AOL Instant Messaging (AIM), for example, and your customer is on Yahoo’s IM service, you won’t be able to chat with him until one of you signs up for the other service. And if another customer is using ICQ, you’ll have to sign up for that one as well.

The main Meebo Web page lets you see which services you’re logged into and your log-in names for each service.
(Click for larger image)

It's certainly possible to sign up for multiple services – virtually all are free for basic features. But each requires a small program that runs in memory on your computer when you’re signed in, using up computing resources and cluttering your desktop.

Also, if you’re using a friend’s or colleague’s computer or a computer in an Internet café and want to be able to chat with your contacts, you’re out of luck unless the other computer happens to have the IM program or programs you need installed – or the owner doesn’t mind you downloading and installing them.

The Solution

Meebo solves these problems by offering an entirely Web-based service – no program to download, you just need a browser – that lets you sign into multiple IM services but use just one interface, the Meebo browser interface.

You still have to sign up for the services your colleagues, customers and suppliers use, but you don’t have to have multiple IM clients running on your system to be able to communicate with them. And you don’t have to log in separately to each service – Meebo can automatically log you into several when you sign in at the Meebo Web page.

And because it’s an entirely browser-based service, you can log in and use Meebo on any Net-connected computer.

Meebo supports most of the popular chat services and some social networking sites, including MSN (also Microsoft’s successor to MSN, Windows Live Messenger), AIM (AOL), Yahoo, Google Talk, MySpace, ICQ, Jabber, plus some we’ve never heard of, such as Piczo and Wadja.

According to Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg's blog, the service once again works with FaceBook after dealing with unspecified security issues. One notable omission: Skype. Skype is a fairly proprietary system so the problem may be with Skype not Meebo. .

A Single Interface

Browser interfaces are never quite as slick as stand-alone programs, but Meebo’s comes close.

When you surf to the Meebo home page, a small movable window pops up that looks like other IM interfaces, showing your buddy list and a few icon buttons, links and fields for key functions such as add-and-remove contacts, search-contacts and change-your-status.

To send a message to a contact, you simply double-click on the contact's name and a standard-format chat window pops up. When you click to add a contact, a window pops up that is similar to other IM add-contact dialogs, except that in this case you have to first choose the service your new contact uses from a pull-down list.

The only slight irritation: you can’t move the Meebo buddy-list window or chat windows anywhere on your desktop, only within the confines of the Meebo Web page in your browser.

Editorial Update: A sharp-eyed reader e-mailed instructions on how to move the Meebo buddy-list and chat windows. "You can actually pop out the buddy list or chat windows into separate windows, which you can then move anywhere on your desktop. Below the minimize button on the buddy list is a popout icon, and below the close/max/min on a chat window is a popout icon. Give it a ride."

Meebo lets you organize contacts by type, which is useful if you have alot of them. The default groups include Co-workers and Other Contacts, but you can add your own – colleagues, customers, suppliers, perhaps, and within each of those last two groups, company names.

The underlying Meebo Web page includes a window showing your log-in status – including which services you’re logged into and your log-in names for those services – with a link to sign on to more accounts.

When you click the latter button, a window pops up with a dialog in which you choose a service from the pull-down list, enter your login and password – you have to sign up at the service providers page first – and indicate by checking the appropriate box whether you want Meebo to automatically log you in to the service when you sign in to Meebo.

Across the top of the page are links to Accounts, Preferences, Help and Meebo Rooms (more about that in a moment).


At the bottom, an advertising banner takes up about an eighth of the height of the page. We didn’t mention that Meebo was advertising supported, but how else could it work when it’s entirely free?

This is one of Meebo’s big downsides for business people. Not that the ads are terribly distracting on their own, and you can minimize the ad bar. But they may be a temptation to young employees unable to concentrate on work. Many are for music and movies, with streaming videos you can watch right within Meebo.

Of course, Meebo is not designed primarily for business use. It’s aimed at hardcore under-25 IM users ‑‑ and the advertising and customizable page-design features reflect that. You can choose, for example, to make the background of your main Meebo page a picture of one of more than 100 music groups – few of which this aged reviewer recognized.

Advanced Features

Like most IM services, Meebo lets you transfer files during a chat, a crucial feature if you’re using it as a partial replacement for e-mail. But there are some annoying restrictions.

You can transfer files to contacts on most services from Meebo, but your contacts cannot in some cases send files from their IM client to you on Meebo. File transfers, when they work, seem to be as fast or faster than with other IM services we’ve tried.

Meebo lists all your contacts from various other IM applications on one central buddy list.
(Click for larger image)

From within a chat window, you can also choose to use any of several plug-in applications from third-party developers. Primary among them is the TokBox-powered audio-video chat function.

It worked reasonably well in our testing of one-to-one audio-video chats, although we could not figure out how to get incoming audio to play through an attached USB headset – it insisted on playing through the laptop speakers.

There are two other marginally useful plug-in apps. One is a transliteration service that lets you type text in a chat window in languages that use non-Latin alphabets – mostly Asian languages such as Urdu and Bengali – using Latin characters. They come out the other end in the language’s actual characters. At the time of writing, however, it appeared not to be working.

The other is a live broadcasting service from Ustream.tv that lets you stream live video to a group of contacts, potentially useful for communicating with a distributed work force.

Other plug-in applications are of little interest to business users. Indeed, they may, again, be a disincentive for businesses to use Meebo as most are games, shopping or celebrity news applications.

The chat rooms feature could be useful for conducting impromptu online meetings with people who use different IM services. As with Web conferencing services, you invite participants and then everyone chats in a single chat window.

Its real purpose, though, is for members of an affinity group to share media they find on the Web. You can add media – images, video, etc. – from a Web site simply by entering its URL, which anyone in the room can then play.

The native Meebo group chat function is much more useful for online meetings, and it lets you use the TokBox and Ustream plug-ins.

Another nice feature: the Meebo Me Widget. It lets you put a Meebo chat window on any Web page that accepts Flash or JavaScript elements, including SalesForce.com and blog pages from popular blog services such as Blogger. Visitors to the site can then send you instant messages.

It takes only a few seconds to set up. We added one to a blog page, and it worked like a charm.

Bottom Line

Meebo solves specific problems with IM for business use. If you don’t have those problems – if all your contacts use the same IM service, and you never need to IM when you`re away from your own computer – you don’t really need it.

But if you do have contacts that use many different services, it’s a solution that works and offers some nice extras as well. And you simply can't beat the price.

This article was originally published on Thursday Feb 5th 2009
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