Debian Chat in Context

Before we can fix chat on Debian, we need to consider where we are today and how we got here.

The beginnings

The traditional chat solution for Debian Developers and the wider world of free software developers is Internet Relay Chat, denoted by the acronym IRC.

IRC began in a period when most people were using a desktop, few people were using a laptop and virtually nobody had a wireless device such as a mobile phone. The main competitors were dial-up bulletin board systems, each of them being an island.

The size of the Internet in that era meant that only a limited number of servers were necessary and username collisions were not a major problem.

Where we are now

We won't go through the evolutionary changes step by step. Rather, we will simply fast forward to the problem today.

Today, many people already have a range of chat services before they even begin participating in free software. For example, somebody may have created accounts using social media during their teenage years. These users already have a critical mass of friends on those platforms and they are comfortable with the user interfaces on their mobile phones.

Asking them to start using IRC requires a big jump and a steep learning curve. It is obvious they can't bring their old friends with them. Using IRC means trying to maintain an entirely new persona alongside their existing personas on other platforms. This in itself is a burden on the mental capacity of any user. Many people only use the most basic features of IRC and only when they have to.

Where we are going

There have recently been attempts to coordinate multiple chat programs into a single interface. The popular Matrix chat software attempts to provide full integration for legacy IRC. Nonetheless, the Matrix developers themselves admit that they don't have a comprehensive solution to federation and identity, in other words, Matrix is marginally better than some alternatives but it is not a silver bullet.

Federated solutions are not new: both SIP and XMPP are federated real-time protocols that support chat messaging. It raises the questions, why didn't Matrix simply extend one of those existing protocols?

In parallel, while Matrix has pursued a federated approach, other developers have explored peer-to-peer and blockchain oriented solutions. One example of this is the Ring platform, now known as Jami.

The peer-to-peer nature of Jami complements the federated strategy behind Matrix.

In the world of SIP, we also have SIP RELOAD, a peer-to-peer, serverless technology that is another alternative to Jami.

Next steps

The above comments attempt to clarify the current situation. In the next blog, we will examine strategic considerations for Debian and other open source users to move forward productively in the world of chat and IM.