Parmesan is a new client for the popular MSN Messenger network, developed by Christian Ludlam. Released as freeware, the software brings new features to instant messaging on RISC OS. Chief among these are display pictures and nudges. The software also doubles as a versatile viewer for arbitrary XML files.
RISC OS has seen the release of several MSN Messenger clients over the years; two free clients (Natter and Messenger) and R-Comp's commercial product, Grapevine. A few years ago all of these clients fell foul of an upgrade to the MSN protocol which stopped RISC OS users from being able to connect to the chat network. To many users' dismay, RISC OS was left without a free MSN Messenger client, as only Grapevine was upgraded to support the new protocol.
Happily, this distressing situation has, at last, been rectified with the release of Parmesan. In this article I'll take a look at Parmesan describe my experience of it. Finally, as a Grapevine owner, I will compare Parmesan with the commercial Grapevine application.
Parmesan was first announced less than a fortnight ago on the Zap technical mailing list, in a call for beta testers. I responded and have been running it ever since. When first run Parmesan presents the user with a simple dialogue box enabling the MSN account details to be entered and lets the user sign in for the first time (figure 1).
"Sign in" dialogue box (RiscPC, running Select 3)
It looks as though Parmesan can cope with multiple users' MSN accounts although I have not tested this myself. Signing in is extremely straightforward and I was quickly presented with a list of my friends; online and offline (figure 2).
Features I like
It is immediately apparent when you start using Parmesan that a lot of thought has gone into the user interface. Looking very much in sympathy with the RISC OS desktop's general design paradigms, it is extremely clean and intuitive. It is uncluttered and has no unnecessary or confusing buttons and toolbars.
Friends window on RISC OS 5
The other thing that struck me when I first signed in was that the software supported "display images", which are little icons, individual to each user. Parmesan is, to my knowledge, the first RISC OS MSN Messenger client to support the feature. Initially, users are given the Parmesan cheese icon as their display image. It very simple to change the image and I soon had a little drawing of a car, created in ArtWorks, as my display picture.
Nudges allow people to attract the attention of the person they are conversing with, by bringing your chat session back to their attention. It is of particular use if your communication is urgent. The chat window (figure 3) has a pane to the side of it which shows your correspondent's display picture and offers two buttons. One of the buttons is for selecting a graphical emoticon and other lets you give your friend a nudge.
The chat window
When I first discovered that Parmesan supported nudges I was a little dubious because I generally dislike things that interfere with my desktop. After experimenting with the feature, I can report that it has been implemented pretty nicely. When you are nudged by a friend, the chat window is brought to the front of the window stack and given a little shake. In my experience, this succeeds in drawing attention to the window without interfering too much with the desktop. The nudged window does not steal input focus, so you can continue typing into another window on the desktop as you receive a nudge. It might be nice to have the option to disable the feature, especially if you suffer any particularly enthusiastic friends.
The text input box at the bottom of chat windows is a multi-line text area. This means that there is plenty of room to read over what you've typed in a long message. It also lets you send multi-line messages. Pressing the
return key sends the message, while
shift+return starts a new line within the same message.
I very much like Parmesan's whole interface. It takes a few liberties here and there, such as not using the standard RISC OS window resize furniture, however Parmesan manages to pull it off without jarring with my delicate sensibilities. The content of the windows, such as the friends list, is well layed out and has quite a polished look.
Parmesan has very advanced configuration functionality. All of the things Parmesan displays, such as the friends list and chat conversations are represented internally in XML format and they way they are displayed is governed by CSS files. This makes it very easy to restyle the the way conversations are shown. For example, if you want to adjust the gap between successive messages in chat windows you can change the value of the
margin-top property for the
message class in the
Chat CSS file.
Things Parmesan doesn't do (yet?)
File transfer is high on Christian's TODO list. I'm told that it works at the moment but there is no front end for the feature so it is disabled by default.
Once you've set up a personal display picture, if you try Parmesan on another computer you need to set the display picture again, because it is not stored on the server. I am told that it is possible to store your picture on the server with later versions of the MSN protocol.
Parmesan in action on a VirtualRPC powered laptop
The MSN Messenger protocol allows for hand drawn messages to be sent, as well as text messages. Parmesan supports the display of hand drawn messages but does not yet cater for sending them. A screenshot showing Parmesan displaying a hand drawn message is available on the Parmesan site's screenshot page.
There are several other rival instant messaging networks, for example ICQ. Only the MSN Messenger protocol is supported supported by Parmesan. This is no issue for me as all my friends use MSN Messenger.
Beyond instant messaging
Aside from being a perfectly good MSN Messenger client Parmesan is also a useful application to have at hand, even if you have no interest in instant messaging. It can be used to display any XML files you might have. Dragging an XML file to the Parmesan iconbar icon causes it to display the XML file's contents raw. If you then drag a suitable CSS file to the XML window it is styled neatly.
By default, Parmesan logs conversations in
Choices:Parmesan.Accounts.n.History. The old conversations are stored in XML format so they can be used to demonstrate Parmesan's XML display functionality. If you drag an XML file to Parmesan, it is opined in a new window. If you then drag the Chat CSS file stored at
!Parmesan.Styles.Chat to the new window, you will see the conversation styled as it was originally, when the conversation first happened.
Parmesan vs Grapevine
I've owned Grapevine since it was first released. Unlike Parmesan it supports multiple chat networks; MSN Messenger, ICQ and IRC. I originally bought it for its MSN Messenger functionality and it introduced me to IRC, which I now use daily via another client. ICQ support was added later but I have never used it. It is clear that Grapevine offers support for more chat networks than Parmesan, but how do they compare on the common ground – as a MSN Messenger client?
I'll start with the user interfaces. Grapevine's interface (see figure 4) is very bright and colourful with lots of buttons to click on. Sadly it has never been quite to my taste. I feel it tries too hard to look snazzy and ends up looking confused, sticks out like a sore thumb and generally seems a little vulgar. Some of its buttons just seem unnecessary, e.g. opening menus that are already available though the normal RISC OS style menu. I very much prefer the simple interface style of Parmesan which looks far more at home on RISC OS.
In terms of actually using the programs, they both behave pretty similarly although it is obvious that Parmesan has had a little more thought put into its interface. For example, Parmesan sorts the friends who are online and offline into alphabetical order; allowing you to find them easily. Normally I wouldn't even notice this but having been a Grapevine user I had been used to Grapevine's baffling ordering. Also, when chatting to friends, the multi-line text area of Parmesan is a far more comfortable message editing environment than Grapevine's single line text entry box. It is easier to read over a long message before sending and isn't such a rigmarole to edit multi-line messages.
Grapevine does have a few strengths to its interface that aren't matched in the first release of Parmesan. If you want to send a similar message to a previous one, for example to change part of a long URL, Grapevine allows you to press the
up cursor key to fill the text area with a previously typed message. Parmesan lacks this convenient feature. Also, Grapevine chat windows take input focus when the mouse is clicked over the main content area, showing the conversation. In Parmesan, users must click in the text area to give the conversation window input focus.
Grapevine also has a useful feature that allows users to set their own display names for each of their contacts. This is a helpful feature if all your friends are in the habit of repeatedly changing their names to a variety of catch phrases and quotes, leaving you unable to keep track of who anyone actually is.
As far as supporting features of the MSN Messenger protocol go, Parmesan is, in my view, a whisker ahead. Its support for display pictures, nudges and even display of hand drawn messages is not yet matched by Grapevine. On the other hand, Grapevine supports file transfers (although my own successes with this has been limited), while Parmesan's current partial support is disabled.
In the stability, reliability and dependability stakes, it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I have had Parmesan for over a week and a half and I've been running it almost constantly, on a variety of RISC OS computers. It has never crashed or acted up on me – by failing to connect or disconnecting without telling me, etc – however I'd need a few months to be sure it's rock solid.
Grapevine has had a few ups and downs over the years with reliability. This is due, in part, to enforced updates to the MSN protocol, which locked Grapevine users out until an upgrade appeared. However, there have been other connection problems as well. Currently, I find Grapevine's reliability is at a bit of a low ebb – occasionally it fails to connect, stops telling me people are talking to me, stops sending my messages or stops updating the list of who's online or offline. These problems can be overcome by disconnecting and reconnecting once you begin to suspect something is amiss. However, the issues left me a bit nonplussed and resulted in me using Grapevine much less over the last year or so. Judging from the Grapevine mailing list and my chats with other users, these problems plague some people but other Grapevine users get along without any problems.
Well, I have to say I think Parmesan is awesome. It surprised me when the beta version was announced and I was very keen to test it. I am really happy with its general appearance and think the interface was designed with great skill. I like the display pictures feature and have found it stable and reliable so far. Parmesan has not been off my iconbar since I downloaded the beta and it was soon added to the "run on startup" lists on my computers. It is clear that there there are more features that can be added to Parmesan and that the interface could be improved a smidgen here and there but Parmesan is already an extremely useful and pleasant to use application. I can't wait for the next release.