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Empathy: the New Pidgin?Empathy: the New Pidgin?

Christopher Tozzi

January 6, 2009

3 Min Read
Empathy: the New Pidgin?

There’s some reason to believe that Empathy is the next big thing in instant-messaging on the Ubuntu desktop.  There have been passionate calls for its adoption in Ubuntu 9.04 as a replacement for Pidgin, and the Gnome people seem to be pushing it (not surprisingly, since it’s developed under their auspices) for future releases–note the big green dot next to Mary Poppins’ name in the conceptualization images of the new Gnome desktop.  Give all this hype, I decided to try it for myself.

I should point out that, a short-lived relationship with Kopete notwithstanding, I’ve been a Pidgin devotee since coming to Linux.  I used it back when it was still called Gaim, before AOL sued the project for the crime of adopting a name that rhymes with ‘AIM’.  In that time, it’s been a reliable, intuitive and extensible instant-messaging client.

Pidgin vs. Empathy

I installed Empathy version 2.24.1 (the same as my Gnome desktop) from the Ubuntu 8.10 repositories.  The current stable release is 2.25, but according the project roadmap, the only features my version lacks are file transfers and the ability to invite people to chat.

My first impression of Empathy was, “Wow, this looks a lot like Pidgin.”  Briefly, the interface looks like this (screenshot borrowed from the Empathy site):

Empathy 2.X interface

The Pidgin interface is good, and I can understand why the Empathy developers would emulate it.  Less understandable, however, is why Ubuntu should switch to Empathy if it doesn’t offer anything new in the look-and-feel department.

On the features front, Empathy is clearly lacking.  Compare its Preferences dialogue:


to that of Pidgin:

Pidgin Preferences

Granted, Empathy is still in development, and Pidgin has been around for years.  But I don’t see any earth-shattering new features planned for Empathy anytime in the future.  I see only stuff that’s been around in Pidgin for a while.

Empathy’s one distinct advantage over Pidgin is the integration of video-chat and VOIP support.  This is nice, especially since Pidgin has no plans to adopt these features.  On the other hand, numerous video-chat options already exist for Ubuntu, including proprietary Skype and the free Ekiga client.  Empathy’s not doing anything particularly innovative on this front either.

The Empathy developers promote its integration with Gnome libraries as one of its advantages.  This might be nice for Linux distributions that only support Gnome, but Ubuntu needs to keep users of other desktop environments, namely KDE and Xfce, in mind as well.  If the Ubuntu developers abandon Pidgin and embrace Empathy as the default instant-messaging client, Kubuntu and Xubuntu will be left behind.

No substitute for Pidgin

Empathy may become a fine instant-messaging client as more features are added.  But Pidgin already does a great job of sending instant messages across multiple protocols, and has all the options and add-ons that most users need.  In the absence of any compelling advantages to Empathy, I don’t see a reason to abandon Pidgin anytime soon.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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