We've covered a bevy of Web-based IM mechanisms for the iPhone, including Mundu, Heysan and TinyBuddy. All have their benefits and drawbacks, but none come close to delivering the overall speed and level of fluid operation that can be achieved with a native application.
Fortunately, thanks to a blossoming third-party, native iPhone application universe, there are now two viable binary instant messaging applications that -- while carrying some significant bugs -- already represent (depending on your usage patterns) the best options for sending and receiving messages through AOL's instant messaging network. They are Apollo IM (which we covered in its early stages) and MobileChat, both of which can be installed through Installer.app (see our guide). They're currently listed under the "Featured" section in Installer.app.
Both clients work generally as you'd expect, serving up a buddy list and allowing you to tend to multiple conversations simultaneously. There are a few notable differences in functionality, however, as follows:
Both ApolloIM and MobileChat support background operation to some extent. In other words, neither client needs to be the foreground application in order to properly remain online and receive instant messages.
ApolloIM will play the old-school IM noise (or vibrate if your ringer is off) and pop up a number next to its application icon, much in the same way the iPhones Mail application indicates new/unread messages, and the SMS application denotes unread text messages.
MobileChat will play an iChat-like noise when a new message comes in, but won't indicate the number of unread messages. The received messages will be displayed when you go back into MobileChat, oddly in reverse chronological order
ApolloIM will sometimes spontaneously lose the keyboard, forcing the user to go back to the buddy list then come back to the conversation in order to type and send messages.
MobileChat generally displays incoming instant messages in text bubbles, Ã la iChat. This functionality often fails, however. Sometimes it will simply show notification-style message boxes (see screenshot at left), but not the bubble-style, transcript text, making it difficult to follow conversations. Generally going back to the buddy list then coming back to the conversation will show the messages in transcript, bubble-style. Also, the application would sometimes not allow entry into the send text field -- a problem also remedied by going to the buddy list then back to the conversation window.
MobileChat has better indication of whether or not there is a conversation currently underway with any given buddy. It also can set away status -- an option not offered by ApolloIM.
Both apps remember your login information between sessions -- a major advantage over Web-based clients. However, ApolloIM stores the login information even when the iPhone is reset or asleep for long periods of time; MobileChat does not.
- Both apps support only AOL IM, not any other protocols.
- Both apps are also significantly faster, especially over EDGE than any Web=based clients we've tested.
- Neither application currently appears to support multi-person chats
As it stands, ApolloIM feels like the more polished application, having existed for a longer period of time and benefiting from several bug-fixing revisions. MobileChat is more feature-rich, but needs some patch-work before it can become completely usable.