Jul 19 2013

IRC, XMPP and WhatsApp


IRC, short for Internet Relay Chat, is a protocol, created in 1988, for instant messaging. There are many IRC client programs and many networks to connect to, and most of the chat happens in channels (chat rooms), while private messages are also possible. The nice thing about IRC is that most servers are non commercial (w.r.t. privacy concerns), and requires very little traffic. Since channels have a name and topic, it’s easy to find a channel that meets your interests, while you can also create your own channel for friends. Channels have operators, who can manage a channel: kick or ban users, set modes and inviting other people. Many more handy commands are available for users, like setting yourself as being away or ignoring someone.

There is quite some development done around IRC: networks improve their servers, client programs are improved, BNCs (a proxy to an IRC server that remain connected to the server when you go offline) are getting more and more features. Next to that, many people create bots that are connected to IRC to make live easier: bots that can lookup information, create statistics, or control (game) servers.


At some point, WhatsApp became popular, and I didn’t get why. It was just another way to message people and it uses a customized protocol, with poor security. Furthermore: all traffic goes via a single, commercial, company, which often makes it tempting to sell users privacy (like Facebook and Google do). This made me think: why not replace WhatsApp with a nice app that uses IRC? The problem with IRC is that it isn’t very noob friendly: it is made by and for people who aren’t scared of computers, with many options, commands and modes. So the app would have to hide all this and show an easy interface for the user. I’ve been talking to IRC developers about this and there are a couple of problems: IRC server do not store messages your receive when you’re offline (you’d need a BNC for that) and sending something to a certain nick does not guarantee that this nick is actually the person you think it is.


Recently I’ve been reading myself into XMPP (forhttp://www.dodedodo.com) and figured that this would is perfect for the app, and of course it turns out that WhatsApp simply uses a customized XMPP protocol. XMPP basically works like email: everyone can setup a server and users get an address (JID) in the form of: user@server.com/device. When you send a message to another user, the message goes via your server, to the other user’s server and ends up at the other user. Because XMPP always uses a login it does not have the same problem that IRC has. Furthermore, there is an XMPP standard extension that enables message storage when a user is offline, and retrieval by the user when he connects again.

So I was looking for XMPP apps and it seems that most apps assume you already have an account, and don’t look very nice. I think that if there was an app that uses standard XMPP, it would be a very nice replacement of WhatsApp.

19 July 2013

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