Getting started with Messages

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When OS X Mountain Lion first appeared, many veteran iChat users fired up the new Messages chat program, poked around a bit, and then quit it in despair. Eventually, some of us relaunched it and began to slog around in it, figuring out how to use the new app to do what we wanted to do, but still we felt a bit lost.

If that sounds familiar to you, perhaps I can help. Now that I’ve muddled through Messages more thoroughly, I think I can provide guidance on how to make the switch from iChat to Messages, for people who still haven’t made the switch.

Whither the buddy list?

The first thing you need to understand is that Messages has pushed the old, familiar buddy list—iChat's primary interface—far into the background. That’s because Apple’s iMessage service—for which Messages is primarily designed—relies on data in your Contacts app instead of its own list of "buddies" to find the people you want to chat with.

But while Messages makes buddy lists less important, it can’t eliminate them altogether, because the third-party chat services that Messages works with—including AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)—depend on these lists to manage approved chat partners. To access lists in Messages, go to Window > Buddies or press Command-1, Command-2, and so forth.

In iChat, you could choose to have individual buddy lists for every account at every service, or you could use the consolidated Buddies list to put everybody in one place. That’s still possible in Messages: Go to Messages > Preferences, click General, and check Show All My Accounts in One List.

Messages also lets you set one status message for all of your accounts or create a different message for each. From the status area in the lower-left corner of the main Messages window, click the little triangle next to your current status message and select Use Same Status for All Accounts (if you want the same message for all accounts) or deselect it and then set individual messages.

Conversation starters

In iChat, if you wanted to start a text, audio, or video chat, or a screen-sharing session, you would select one or more buddies (depending on the service and its abilities). Then (depending on what you wanted to do) you would click, right-click, or select a menu to proceed. For instance, you would right-click an AIM buddy and select Invite to Video Chat to start a video session.

In Messages, your first step is always the same: Click the New Conversation button (in the upper left, just to the right of the Search field) and then type a name in the To field.

The main window in Messages acts as a dashboard for consolidating conversations and contacts. Click the disguised video pop-down menu (not a button!) to use A/V and screen-sharing methods with a contact.

As you do so, Messages shows all of the people on your list who match what you’ve typed so far; some of them show up multiple times, depending on the number of different ways Messages can reach them. Select an account entry from the list, and the name shows up as a token in the To field while the service name appears as grayed-out text in the message-entry field at the bottom of the window.

You're then free to type a message, and press Return (or Enter) to send it. Or you can change your mind and send it to that person on a different account: Click the drop-down arrow (not the name) of the contact in the To list to reveal the phone numbers and email addresses registered with iMessage for that contact. (Numbers and addresses that work with iMessage get a blue icon.) That same menu also shows you the contact’s status (represented by a green, yellow, or red ball) on other services that you’re currently logged in to. This arrangement allows you to choose how to contact the person without circling back to a buddy list first.

It also supports seamless conversations at a level that iChat never did. For instance, let’s say that I start talking to Bob via AIM. He leaves his office, and responds to me using iMessage from his phone. That response shows up as part of the same conversation (as Messages dubs these threads). At home, he signs into Google Talk (he’s a chatty guy), and Messages changes to that service. I'll know that he’s made the switch because a dividing line will appear in the scrolling vertical chat transcript, identifying the service change along with its time and date.

Sound and vision

Audio and video chats and screen sharing can be hard to find in Messages. This change has baffled more people I know than almost anything else in Messages. They want to use the Messages window, but when it comes to initiating an audio or video chat, they go back to the familiar old buddy list because they don’t know how else to proceed.

Here’s what I tell them: After selecting a contact in the main Messages widow, look up at the far right of the To field for a video icon. Click that and you'll get a drop-down menu; for every active account associated with the selected contact, you can choose FaceTime, Audio, or Video, or elect to share your screen or ask to share theirs.

Select FaceTime, and Messages will launch the separate FaceTime app, and then try to start a video chat using the contact method you’ve chosen—iPhone phone number, say, or email address. Choose Audio or Video, and Messages will use the familiar multimedia chat tools, in an interface very much like iChat’s.

This method works only for one-on-one chats. FaceTime limits you to video-chat with one party on the other end. But if you want to start an audio chat (with up to nine other people) or a video chat (with up to three others), you have to select them via the old buddy list and then choose either Invite to Video Chat or Invite to Audio Chat, as appropriate.

Theater hasn't gone away: You can still drag and drop files into an active video chat to start a presentation.

Once you have a chat underway, take a look at the Messages window. In iChat, we had to make do with a floating window that handled multiple conversations but provided relatively little information about each. The Messages window takes the idea of conversations more seriously. The Conversations list at left shows active and previous chats, and a snippet of the last message typed, whether the talks occurred via iMessage, Bonjour, or an instant-messaging service.

In fact, Messages doesn’t incorporate the concept of ending a chat. As long as an entry exists in the Conversations list, you can resume it at any time. Just click the entry, begin typing, and the conversation will resume if the other party is online (in the case of instant messaging) or available (with iMessage). Conversations also double as what were known in iChat as transcripts.

Theater fans

One last thing that some iChat users may be scratching their heads about: Where did iChat Theater go? Many people never touched that feature (which allows users to push video of themselves and a presentation, document, photos, or webpage to a remote video-chat buddy), while others love it. (I'm in the latter group, and I’ve given user-group presentations by this means.)

Apple didn’t kill iChat Theater: You can initiate the feature after you start up a standard video chat using AIM, Bonjour, or Google Talk. In the video window, click the plus (+) button, and the four Theater options will appear. You can also drag files into a video window, and the split-pane dotted rectangles that iChat offered for transferring a file or starting a Theater presentation remain available. In my testing, iPhoto and individual files worked just fine with Theater, but Keynote 09 didn't.

The bottom line is that Messages is an amalgam of iChat and an entirely new app; as such, it has a learning curve. But once you’ve figured out where all the moving parts are, Messages has much to recommend it. It just takes some practice.

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