Drag & Drop

Getting started with XMPP

Most people assume that their WhatsApp or Hangouts conversations are private. Actually, when you sign up for their services, you give them permission to know who you keep in touch with, when you chat with them, and how long those messages are.

The main reason people still use them is the Network Effect. That’s when everyone is using some service, so you have to use it too, to keep in touch with them. WhatsApp doesn’t let you send messages to your Hangouts friends, and the other way round, so you’re forced to create an account to message the people there.

Luckily, you don’t have to do that any more. Instead, you can just use XMPP.

In case you missed the previous article, XMPP is basically the chat version of email. So you can chat with people regardless of where they have an XMPP account, just like how people on Gmail and Yahoo and FastMail can email each other without worrying about which service the other person uses.

So how do you create an XMPP account? Well, there are a whole lot of XMPP servers out there, like blah.im, jabber.at, and xmpp.is. Most are run by volunteers, some are run by companies, and many are run by people like you who didn’t know which server to pick so decided to start their own.

One of the most well-known servers is jabber.at, but if you want a full list, there’s one over here. Then you can pick a server based on which country it’s based in, what the security rating is, and — most importantly — which name you like best.

Once you’ve signed up for an account, you’ll have an XMPP ID like badrihippo@jabber.at. It looks like an email address, but it’s actually a chat address. Don’t worry, it works almost the same way. But now that you have an XMPP account, how do you use it? You’ll find that none of the websites have a place to actually chat with people. That’s because you’re expected to install a client or app, which you use for actual chatting.

For desktop computers, you can download Pidgin here or get its macOS counterpart, Adium. There are many other programs too, but Pidgin lets you install plugins to add new features, so it’s the one I use. When you first open Pidgin, it will open the Accounts window for you to set up a new one. Select “XMPP” as the protocol, fill in the username and password, and you’ll be ready to start.

XMPP works on your mobile, too! Android users can get Xabber or Conversations.im from the Play Store. Conversations.im is easier to start with, but you have to pay for the Google Play version. If you can’t afford that, then you can download the F-droid app store, also available on the Play Store. F-droid lets you install Conversations.im for free, thou you’ll have to edit one of you phone’s security settings. Remember to change it back afterwards.

Are you an iPhone user? There aren’t many options for you in that case, but ChatSecure is a nice one. Or you can see if you find anything else on the App Store.

And finally, if you’re borrowing someone else’s computer just for a quick chat, you can point their browser to conversejs.org. They let you embed an XMPP chat window into your own website — but you can use their demo page to do the chatting there itself.

So now you’ve set up an XMPP account and got your apps ready to use it. What’s next? Get some friends on, of course! I’ll be writing more articles on XMPP and it’s hidden features, but now you know enough to start chatting. While you wait for your friends, feel free to add me as the first contact. If you can spot it somewhere in this article.


An earlier version of this article was published in Sirius #241 19 Mar — 1 Apr 2017 “The Pokémon Maker”, under the title “Take control of your conversations with XMPP”

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