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Apple released Messages Beta for all of its desktop and laptop PCs on Feb. 12. The new app replaces iChat and potentially other messaging programs from Apple and others.
The beta currently requires the latest version of Mac OS X Lion, 10.7.3. So if you're not running the latest version of Lion, make sure you run a software update, or better yet, head on over to the Apple support page and download the Client Combo update to get the latest version of Lion. Please note that if you like the app and wish to use it after the beta period expires, you're going to need to upgrade to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. Messages will run only on Mountain Lion after it is officially released.
Setting up Messages Beta
After you install Messages, setup will begin. Messages asks you for your Apple ID, and if you want read receipts sent to you. After setup is done, it asks to reboot your Mac. After you restart, you can configure the rest of your accounts.
Instant messaging and video chat support
If you had iChat installed on your computer, you should see all of your previous accounts show up in Messages Beta. It is intended to be a replacement for iChat, which is being retired with the release of Mountain Lion. However, Messages has built-in support for AIM, Jabber, Google Talk, Bonjour, and Yahoo! Instant Messenger. Messages Beta also will update your status on Facebook, provided you have Facebook's status updater as a buddy on AIM.
With the release of Messages Beta, Apple is integrating FaceTime into its standardized IM and chat client. You can now start a FaceTime video chat with the person you're trading IMs with directly from iMessage, AIM, Yahoo!, or another chat app provided your friend has the same software. iMessage users on an iDevice will need to be connected on Wi-Fi for this to work (although this is nothing new--FaceTime has always insisted on Wi-Fi).
Messaging across devices
I've been playing with Messages Beta over the past couple of days, and I have to say that from the perspective of an iOS 5 iMessage user, I like what I see. I like being able to text my daughter's iPhone from my PC. You should be able to send and receive text messages not only with anyone with an Apple ID or iDevice, but with just about any mobile device. There were just a few odd behaviors in my text message conversation with my daughter: her iPhone identified me as my Apple ID--my email address--and not by my contact name. And her replies arriving on my end contained all of the content that was on my iPhone, including messages sent and received prior to me installing Messages Beta on my Mac. I found this very interesting, as it means that you can start a conversation on your iDevice and then continue it without losing any context on the desktop, and back the other way as well.
As a quick aside, although Messages appears and behaves like a nearly finished application, it is clear that there is still some work to be done. Once I've got a conversation started with someone, I would expect that conversation to stay in the left pane unless and until I remove the conversation from my Mac. Opening and closing the program window doesn't do this consistently, though the complete conversation history is consistently pulled over each time a new message is initiated and sent. I've noticed that if the other party initiates the conversation, then the conversation shows up in the left hand pane of the program window, but again, inconsistently.
For a beta app, Messages delivers a really great iMessage experience. The app pulls in the entire conversation from all of your iDevices, and allows you communicate with all of your contacts in a clean, easy-to-use desktop interface. As a replacement for iChat, it does a decent job, although the interface between iMessage and your other IM accounts is kept completely separate. This might be good and bad, as it definitely keeps their spam-ridden chocolate out of my nice iOS-based peanut butter. However, I would like to see some kind of UI consolidation, and we might in future releases or even in the released version that comes with Mountain Lion. As this is an early release, it's clear that much if not the entire enchilada could change.Price: Free. Requires OS X 10.7.3. Released version will only run on OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion)