Back before the days of Meebo Rooms and really great, full featured desktop instant-messaging applications there was IRC. Its group chat channels provided a place of entertainment, technical support, and one of the original vehicles for peer-to-peer file sharing.
Despite its utility, IRC tends to have a stigma as being difficult to get into, and a tool aimed mainly at advanced users. However, this weekend I've been using Mibbit (not to be confused with Ribbit), a delightfully simple approach to IRC that runs right in your browser--no special client required. For any newbie IRC users, this is a great way to get your foot in the door.
IRC nuts will be in love, as Mibbit lets you hop to all your usual servers and keep a hot list of your favorite channels to launch every time you sign on. Users can tweak the look and feel of Mibbit down to the coloring and fonts that are used.The entire experience is also tabbed, so depending on the width of your screen you can easily have 10 or more channels open and have several private conversations going without a hiccup. Even though it's Web based, the creators have built Mibbit with a generous amount of Ajax, meaning there will be no need to hit the refresh button to update the chat.
It also handles private messaging and ops controls similar to a desktop application with contextual menus that pop-down. It's a lot simpler than having to type in the right codes to set modes--something that traditionally makes IRC take a while to learn. Newbie users can also find rooms they might be interested in with a search tool that will let you see how many users are in each room as well as what IRC server it's on.
Site owners who want to stick Mibbit on their page can do so with some simple embed code that opens up straight to whatever channel they set. I've embedded one after the break. It's not as full featured as the version you can put on your site using an entire iFrame, but it should give you a taste. One thing you'll notice right off the bat is that it saves the last few lines of the room's conversation, which we've seen elsewhere on places such as Meebo Rooms and Yaplet--and can be immensely helpful in getting up to speed with what others are chatting about.
See also: Five free ways to chat with other Web site visitors
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