Blog Post

Interview: Evan Schoenberg on Adium

Adium duck icon If you read the popular DrunkenBlog, you’ve probably seen a number of the awesome interviews there, and the coverage of the Mac, Open Source, Linux, etc. More than a year ago, the author known as “DrunkenBatman” interviewed Evan Schoenberg about the up-and-coming IM client for the Mac, known as Adium (or sometimes AdiumX). A year later, Adium is getting better and better, and the more commonly complained about bugs are getting taken care of, and the feature set is growing. In addition, the big switch is happening. He and I will talk about that, and we’re essentially picking up where we “left off” with DB, so I recommend that you read the previous interview if you haven’t already. If you aren’t familiar with Adium, but use instant messaging, you definitely want to check it out before the day is out.

So, since the interview with DrunkenBatman a year ago, the biggest things in recent Mac history have happened – the switch to Intel, for instance. How ready is Adium for that switch? What is your reaction to the move?

Above all, I’m excited about the move… I’m not yet convinced how big a change it’s really going to be for consumers: show me big changes to battery life, huge performance jumps, or, and here’s what would actually seal the deal for a large group of people on the fence because of software availability concerns, a way to run Windows games with minimal emulation and hardware graphics acceleration, and I’ll be 100% sold, but until then I’m just ‘excited’. Certainly, I think investors will respond and the Mac elite will join with Apple marketing in bouncing around the room… maybe the most important thing is that the switch will draw many people to take a closer look at what it really means to use a Mac and, in looking, they’ll fall in love. I really do hope to see it close the battery life gap which currently sets some Wintel machines ahead, though after playing with a friend’s new PC laptop I’m no longer as hopeful for a system I can use in my lap while wearing shorts.

Adium isn’t ready for the switch yet, though of course it will already run via the Rosetta emulation layer. I’ve been contacted by a user with access to a Mactel box who has Adium running there via “a nasty hack” – I don’t know what the hack is yet, but I’m looking forward to working with him to figure out how to do it cleanly. Adium-the-Cocoa-program could be compiled to be “universal” (so it can run natively on PPC and x86) with minimal effort, as Xcode 2.1 makes that easy. The hard part is the libgaim framework, which builds the core of [ Gaim] as well as all of its dependencies, plus the OTR and Meanwhile plugins and dependencies. Configuration of those build processes is managed via files which are very processor specific – when building from the command line, the configure script normally automatically detects everything which is needed, and we used that information in setting up the builds. It’d be a lot easier with direct access to Xcode on a Mactel machine, but Apple decided not to make that an easy thing to do for an open source project or small developer: you have to be at least an Apple Developer Connection Select member ($500) to rent (not buy) the $999 development machine. Fortunately, we have an amazing user base, and I’m sure this user or another will provide all the help we need to be universal long before the first Mactels hit the market.

A year ago, you were using a Powerbook G4, 867 MHz. Have you upgraded since then? If not, do you plan to soon, or will you wait for the MacIntels? There are many people who are in that boat, and don’t know what they should do right now. Any thoughts?

I upgraded about a month ago to a new Powerbook G4 15” 1.67 GHz with 1.5 GB RAM (512 MB from Apple, 1 GB from a thriftier memory vendor) and upgraded VRAM (128 MB). I thought about waiting for the MacIntels – iBooks and Powerbooks will probably get the most benefit from the switch if Apple marketing’s claims about power-per-watt are accurate – but I decided not to. It’s a truism of any computer purchase that your system will be ‘obsolete’ (if you choose to buy into the sales-oriented, upgrade-happy paradigm in which obsolete is synonymous with no-longer-top-of-the-line) weeks after purchase it; I think Dave Berry may have had it right in Dave Berry in Cyberspace when he claimed that secret agents… ninjas, if you will… are waiting in the bushes outside your home to radio back to corporate headquarters the moment you open the box so they can ready the next big thing. With that in mind, I think that waiting for a new release which is at least a year away just isn’t worth it. Either you don’t need the upgrade, or you do, and if you do you’re missing out by not having the use of it for the interregnum.

My situation was a bit unique; my mother was looking to move up from my old B&W G3/450 (a bit insufficient for her 9 GB and growing iPhoto library!) and wanted a laptop, but didn’t feel she needed a brand new one… and as I was entering medical school I felt that a fresh laptop to go with a big move was in order. Of course, there’s also the fact that we all love new toys.

After showing people Adium, I’ve noticed how much they like the various “xtras” that are available for Adium. What are the plans that you see for adding extensibility to Adium? After message window styles, contact lists, sounds, dock icons, Growl, …what is the next step that you see? (is there anything I missed in that list?) Are things like Myko (and the various gaming-over-IM features) getting a lot of attention right now?

Adium prefrences - lots of customizing!

Let’s see, right now we have message window styles, contact list xtras, (layouts and color schemes), emoticons, soundsets, dock icons, status icons, service icons, and Applescript-based substitution triggers. In terms of future extensibility, one thing I’d definitely like to see which would make Adium more customizable would be for our Applescript support to be greatly expanded. Adium can be controlled at a fairly basic level already, but finer control along with two-way communication via handling plugins would allow a lot of neat expansions, many of which we’d probably never even know were great until an enterprising user/coder came up with them. For example, there is already a Sailing Clicker proximity script for Adium… better Applescript control would let someone with a Bluetooth phone do whatever-it-is-that-people-with-Bluetooth-phones-want-to-do. If anyone reading this has interest in and experience with making Cocoa Apple-scriptable, drop us an email and get involved :)

Growl itself offers a wide variety of customization possibility, with all its display styles and their options; it’s a separate project, which is great because Adium development effort doesn’t have to worry at all about how to display notifications – we just tell Growl to throw up a display, and it takes care of the rest. That development advantage is exactly what gave rise to the idea of Growl in the first place: Chris Forsythe, the Growl project manager, has been involved with Adium for a long time and saw the need after watching us struggle with maintaining a custom notifications solution. Now a dedicated development effort for notifications benefits over a hundred applications.

Author’s note: You don’t need to download Growl seperately if you have the latest Adium, as it is usually included with Adium.

Myko has been hibernating recently due to the schedules of its developers, but is still alive and kicking… I hope to see great things out of the project in the future.

Many of our users agree that Adium seems to be one of the most successful open source programs out there – in terms of users “just getting it”. Firefox is the same way. What do you think makes it more successful than many other OSS projects and Linux distros, that average users download it and love it?

Oh, wow, you just made my day, comparing Adium’s success to Firefox’s. I’m not sure if higher praise can be reaped upon an OSS project intended for the masses.

I think our success amongst ‘average’ users can be attributed to an attention to user interface detail – it’s an unfortunate but common phenomenon in open source projects that the geeks involved (and I use the word ‘geek’ in the best possible sense) want to tackle complex coding tasks but want to avoid the UI as much as possible. Instant messaging, alongside a web browser and an email client, is one of those things that most people who use it at all use it all the time… so, unlike a utility app which you open, make use of, and close immediately, it’s vitally important that the program function intuitively and attractively every step of the way.

Well, either that or the stunning good looks of Adium’s development team. Really could go either way on that one.

Adium was given a nod – er, a “special mention” at the WWDC 05 Apple Design Awards. What did this mean for you? Did you receive one of those cool, mysterious glowing cubes? Did Apple fly you out to Cali to attend, or were you already planning to go? Are you getting any recognition, job offers, etc, as a result?

It meant I floated around for a while thrilled at having been recognized (initially, I was sad we didn’t win, but after looking at the competition, I don’t think a special mention is anything to feel less than ecstatic about), and treated myself to a beer or three.

I’ve received a few job offers related to Adium, as has Adam, though I couldn’t say if they were a direct result of the ADA special mention. Sadly, I haven’t been able to accept – this week, for example, I’ve been too busy with human dissection to think about much else besides sleeping (and a little poker) in my spare time.

It would be my guess that server demands are huge for the Adium team by now. How many downloads is the server putting up per day? … and what about the side things, like Has the number of users been growing significantly, and what would be the catalyst for that?

Without our fantastic set of sponsors who donate bandwidth and resources to the project we’d definitely be overwhelmed. Our download hosting is provided by CacheFly; Adium 0.82 has over 250,000 downloads, and, as of this writing, almost 2 months since the last release, it gets about 3,000 downloads a day.

That’s an increase since Adium 0.81 about equal to the total number of users we had in January 2005, 70,000… so yes, I’d say that’s significant growth. I think that since we don’t do any advertising, the acceleration is due to a critical mass of people telling friends and colleagues about Adium – a classic grassroots spread.

On the development side, our Trac issue tracking and documentation site and our Subversion source code repository are hosted by PenguinMilitia Networks. Trac can be fairly resource intensive, so that hosting is a big deal to us… I recommend Trac to any team looking for a bug reporting and tracking system. had 85,199 visits last month, from 50,551 unique visitors, for about 100 GB transferred. The site is hosted by Network Redux.
The lightest load we have is our web site itself (excluding the Support & Development) part… that’s hosted by SourceForge. They did our source code repository via CVS in the past, but CVS is just too painful to use, especially when better solutions such as Subversion are out there.

You’ve talked about issues from the commercial providers of the services – Yahoo, AOL, MSN – who would cut off third-party apps like Gaim, Adium, and Trillian from time to time. Are they still doing that, or have they decided to help you guys now?

There’s definitely no help coming from that department… judging by this recent talk that might change for the worse sometime soon if the big three feel sufficiently threatened by Google Talk. We’ve seen bouts of minor incompatibility due to changes serverside — a crash when an invalid password was entered for a Yahoo account, for example, reared its ugly head while 0.82 was out (and has since been fixed) — but nothing that targeted third-party apps.

I’d love for Adium (and Gaim and Trillian for that matter) to have numbers in a range which would outperform the official clients… but without a GetFirefox-style campaign, that’s not going to happen, and even then it’s mostly savvy users and friends/family/unwitting victims of savvy users who would switch. The question to be asking, then, is whether third parties apps hurt or help the Big Three.

On one hand, there’s the obvious “hurt” in that we piggy-back on their network without paying licensing fees and, much more relevant to competition with the official clients since the official software is free to download, without displaying their advertising. I’m not convinced the advertising is very effective, but I don’t have any numbers on revenue generated by it. The less obvious hurt which has been claimed before (notably by Yahoo when they made an official attempt to block third parties some time ago) is ‘spim’, or IM Spam… the claim is that allowing third parties on the network reduces the security and opens it up to spam bots. I consider this a fairly groundless claim; a bot could interface with Mac AIM or Yahoo Messenger nearly as easily as it could with Adium, and things like serverside rate limiting (AIM) make it further a nonissue.

On the other, users who might not otherwise be on the network could be on it because of the existence of a third party program, which would add to the number of people one can communicate with using it and therefore increase its overall value. This really isn’t true in most cases, though, as I’d estimate 98% of our users come from an official client (or other third party client) and switch to Adium to get a better instant messaging experience.

So really, I don’t think the third parties enter very much into the calculations of the big players in any significant sense, other than their everyday use (I heard a while back that several of the Mac AIM people were using Adium, for example). That’s why I can believe that the entrance of an expansionary new player like Google might actually upset the balance of things.

Who, out of the Adium team, is concentrating on the visual look of Adium? Is the project focused on the “look and feel”? It looks really good… is that accidental, or do you go about that a certain way? For instance, do you go strictly by Apple’s guidelines, or do you change things to suit your own needs? (There are debates about the way that Apple designs their apps, but not following their own HIG.)

Anyone contributing code is expected to make it look good… but it’s Adam’s and my responsibility to ensure that happens. The project’s definitely focused on look and feel; our use of libgaim, the Gaim-based protocol core (and possibly other libraries in the future) lets us focus on the parts of Adium which make it a clean OS X application while others make progress with and maintain our lowest-level connectivity.

The look definitely isn’t accidental, but it wasn’t exactly planned out in advance at the start of the project either (nor, I hope, will it stop improving in the near future). It’s evolved over time, a combination of original designs and feedback based on user reports. A lot of the Apple Human Interface Guidelines is great advice for programs; we’ve definitely used them as inspiration and, all else being equal, adhered to them where possible. It’s important to remember that they are Guidelines, not Rules. Apple has emphasized that point with its recent programs, creating the new ‘Unified’ window appearance with its new toolbar button style (Mail), adding partially transparent floating windows with on-hover behavior (iPhoto), and so on. The message is clear: Do what makes your app feel the most attractive, natural, friendly, and functional to users. I think that following the HIG whenever possible is important to that end, as this allows a user who has learned one compliant program to quickly learn to use another.

Let’s give our readers a little background info – age, location, year in school, etc….

Sure. I’m 22 and graduated from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, in May, 2005. I’m now a first year medical student at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA. Boxers, not briefs; dogs over cats, though over the last couple years I’ve come to appreciate cats a lot more than I used to (but my girlfriend of 8 years is allergic to cats, so dogs it is).

Well, there you have it, folks. You can rest soundly knowing that the huge open source IM client for Mac OS X will continue to grow and improve for you, the guys behind it are pretty smart, and they remain optimistic about the Intel switch so far. If you would like to download Adium X, you can visit their website at It’s free, which is always nice.

7 Responses to “Interview: Evan Schoenberg on Adium”

  1. I’ve been using adium since I switched to Mac (note: I switched from linux) about a year ago and have been very happy. I’m a software developer myself and I’m impressed with what you’ve been able to do. Good luck with rosetta and the switch to intel.

    It wasn’t talked about in this interview (but maybe the previous one?), but what’s up with the duck? What’s the inspriation?

  2. I’ve been an Adium user since …..jeez, the beginning? I’m the same age as Evan, and back when I first started using it, the knowledge that some people out there my age were building such a kickass application really spurred me to do big things.

    Thanks Evan, Adium is my favorite app.

  3. Very nice interview! I really love Adium, there’s an app that has seriously good interface design. It’s amazing that it was done by a 22 year old. That’s a great feather to have in Evan’s cap. So the choice will be medicine or development… tough!! Medicine probably pays better, but perhaps if he was able to get a job with Apple the pay might be OK…