Easy XMPP: The Challenges
Over the last years, the XMPP community has had a hard time competing with other Instant Messaging implementations, especially in the mobile / smartphone ecosystems. By focusing a small part of our resources on user experience (UX), we can gain significant improvements. This article is the first in a series of "Easy XMPP" posts: easy ways for application developers to make XMPP easy to use.
Complexity of Federation
As opposed to most other Instant Messaging solutions, XMPP is a federated protocol. That allows everyone to run their own servers, at the cost of additional complexity for users:
- the user identifier always consists of a user and a domain part,
- there is no central registry that will consume your phone book and tell you who else is using XMPP,
- some servers might be running an older stack not supporting modern features, etc.
This inherent complexity, together with many developers' lack of attention to good UX, have left us in a situation where on-boarding of new users and finding contacts is painfully hard, especially when compared to proprietary/centralized IM solutions.
It is not possible to remove the inherent complexity of federation without replacing XMPP with a completely different protocol. However, there is another federated system that is well established and used by people all over the world: email. XMPP and email share the same basic principles - they are federated, user identifiers are user@domain and it is possible (albeit less common) to run your own server (or to get your own domain hosted with a commercial provider).
By leveraging users' knowledge about how email works, learning from over forty years of email evolution, and applying ideas from modern UX design on top, it is possible to make XMPP easier to use today.
There are several areas where our community needs to improve. This post provides an overview of the challenges we are currently facing in different areas. Subsequent posts will dive deeper into the individual topics and work out possible solutions.
The XMPP terminology is driven by technical requirements and exposes complexities of the protocol. Normal IM users don't want to know about PubSub Publish Options, asymmetric presence subscription in their roster, or MUC-PM Carbons. All they care about is to see whether their friends are online and that they can exchange cat pictures.
It is our task as the developer community to create understandable abstractions of the technical complexities, and to set up a common glossary for the user-facing elements, including translations into common languages. We need to define what the difference between "Jabber" and "XMPP" is, whether the user identifier is a "JID", a "Jabber ID", an "XMPP address", or a "user identifier", and fix all the other terms that are exposed to users and make clients inconsistent today. And then we need to apply this glossary to our implementations.
First-time User Experience
The first-time user experience for IM users needs to be streamlined. The users who need the most assistance are newcomers to the ecosystem who got invited by a friend, and start out with nothing but their friend's Jabber ID. They need help to accomplish these tasks:
- install a modern client
- create an account
- add their friend
- automatically find all their other friends
- find other users and chat rooms
Projects like Easy XMPP Invitations, Pre-Authenticated Roster Subscription, and invite URLs are a first step in that direction, and getting them into your client today will make new users' lives easier. But there is also potential to further streamline the whole process.
Easy Group Chats
There are two typical IM use cases for group chats: chat with friends or family (private groups), or participate in a public chat room (typically for support purposes, pioneered by Internet Relay Chat).
The latter is well-covered by MUC, and the upcoming MIX should provide a solid technical basis for both use cases. The next logical step is to allow the easy creation and sharing of ad-hoc rooms between different clients, with a coherent user experience.
If the amount of spam is a measure of XMPP's popularity, the network is doing exceptionally well. Almost all of today's XMPP spam can be blocked with some easy pattern matching rules, and the inevitable arms race will move to the next round.
Call for Action
You can help making XMPP easier to use. As a user, you can contribute ideas, add user stories, check your favorite client for confusing UI elements and non-helping wizards, and report those to the developers. As a developer, you can streamline the on-boarding process in your client and contribute to the common glossary.