The Mystery White Box of MSN/Windows Live Messenger

Mystery White Box

I’ve noticed that this evening some mystery white boxes have begun to appear in Windows Live Messenger beneath display pictures. It’s just a strange white square which doesn’t seem to do anything.

Why am I making a post about such a seemingly banal thing you ask? Well…

It’s not in all conversation windows. And I’ve heard that certain people using Windows Live Messenger 9 see a Microsoft Office icon rather than a blank square.

The reason why this is possibly significant is because it could hint that Microsoft is launching a way for people to collaborate on Microsoft Office documents through Windows Live Messenger. A way to collaborate on work through WLM and Office certainly seems a lot more natural than using Google Docs.

I had a phase where I developed a few small applications which integrated with Windows Live Messenger and there was definitely a hint of future Office integration in there. In the “What am I listening to?” music feature, changing one argument in the API function call would give you the Office logo instead in the message

My prediction is that Microsoft is just about to launch a feature where you can collaborate on documents. The only thing is there doesn’t seem to be any logic in which contacts the white box appears with. I thought it might have been visible for people who used Office 2007 but that doesn’t seem to be the case, nor does it seem to matter whether the other person has a copy of Office running.

Watch this space…

Appearing Offline on MSN/Windows Live Messenger: Game Theory Analysis

Creative Commons License photo: jenn_jenn

A few years ago, Microsoft introduced the ability to “hide” on Appear Offline on MSN Messenger and to keep talking to people. This is quite a useful feature for the anti-social types who really don’t want anybody to talk to them!

I’ve noticed some interesting trends since this feature has been introduced. The people who used to have their status stuck on “away” now use appear offline. This is perhaps frustrating when you then end up calling or texting at extortionate rates your friend instead whilst you’re actually both sitting at your computer!

The reason why people use “appear offline” is so they can be selective about who they talk to. Fair enough. But when other people also use “appear offline”, it doesn’t work. This could be illustrated using a bit of game theory.

Appear Offline

Initially, lets say that both persons A and B gain 2 units of utility from being online in MSN Messenger. This utility could be in many forms: pleasure gained from sharing gossip, money saved in not having to text or time saved. The exact form of the utility isn’t important.

Let’s go into hiding… 

grandmaster FLAX ~ II
Creative Commons License photo: striatic

Now lets say Person A decides to “Appear Offline” but Person B is still “Online”. Person A will only talk to Person B when it is beneficial to him. Person A will still gossip with Person B but only in times convenient to himself and when he’s stuck on his particle physics essay, he can still see when Person B is online and get help from him. For this reason, Person A’s utility increases from 2 to 3.

But Person B won’t derive any utility. When he needs somebody to talk to, or has run into a brick wall upgrading to Service Pack 3, he won’t be able to get through to Person A on MSN Messenger. Instead, he might end up calling or find a more sociable person to talk to! Hence Person B derives no utility from this arrangement.

Notice that the payoffs are symmetrical. If Person B decides to “Appear Offline” but Person A doesn’t, Person B will gain 3 units of utility whilst Person A will gain nil.

The fourth possible situation is when both Persons A and B decide to “Appear Offline”. Neither persons derives any utility from this arrangement as they’ll never talk to each another. They might as well actually be offline.

The best arrangement 

Holy Rollers
Creative Commons License photo: J. Random

As we can see, in this analysis the best possible outcome is that both persons A and B are online. They both derive 2 units of utility from this arrangement and 4 units of utility are gained in total.

Person A or person B could seek to increase the utility they gain by appearing offline. This increases their own utility to 3 units. Would they do this in reality? Rationally, probably yes.

If person A decided to stay “online”, person B would gain 2 units of utility from staying online and 3 units from appearing offline. So in this situation, person B should appear offline to maximise their own payoff.

If person A decided to “appear offline”, person B gains no utility either way. So it really doesn’t matter whether person B stays online or appears offline. But they don’t lose any utility by appearing offline.

By considering all the possible outcomes, person B will rationally choose to appear offline to maximise their payoff. As the situation is symmetrical, person A should also rationally choose to appear offline. The outcome? Both persons A and B “appear offline” and nobody gains any utility.

Back to the real world…

In this discussion and game theory model, I’ve abstracted from reality. Of course, it isn’t true that everybody on MSN Messenger appears offline these days. But I will say that amongst my contact list, I know quite a few people do and it has lead to some annoying situations. I’m even guilty of “appearing offline” on many occasions without realising the person I want to talk to is also appearing offline and waiting for me to come online.

Facebook Chat Launching

Facebook Chat is currently being launched – it has been rolled out to the first networks this morning according to Inside Facebook. I previously reported on this and linked to a video which showed Facebook Chat in operation.

From the screenshots on Inside Facebook, it looks like a fairly simple browser-based IM client which works very similarly to Gmail Chat. There is a bit of convergence between Facebook and Gmail in that both try to build a browser-based IM system on existing social networks and both are planning or have implemented Jabber/XMPP.

It looks like a really nice way to communicate and quite a few people have said that this will encourage them to leave Facebook open all day. Chat API is set to be added in a future update to Facebook chat (applications can’t integrate with it yet).

I’d be really interested in hearing what people think of Facebook Chat when it’s rolled out to their account. I’m quite convinced that Facebook will become a major player in IM simply because of the quality of the friends list. But I could be wrong; it may simply be more a reflection on how I use Facebook than others.

Instant Messenger Wishlist

I love instant messaging for it’s speed, low costs and ease of keeping in touch with others. But here’s my wishlist:

  • Facebook Friend List: The main reason I use MSN Messenger because all of my friends live on it. Not because MSN is a superior network; in fact it can often be frustrating when the MSN network goes down across the world. It really doesn’t matter how technically superior your protocol or client may be – it’s whether you can actually get the job done: to chat with the people you want to. Saying that, my friends list does not live on MSN – in fact my MSN contact list is a small subset. Instead, it lives on Facebook. For me, the perfect IM client would allow me to everybody on my friends list – not just those on the MSN list. So support for the Facebook Friends list.
  • Distributed Network: Nothing is more frustrating than MSN Messenger downtime. It’s true that in many ways it’s positive: I wouldn’t be surprised if GDP and grades would double overnight if MSN Messenger went down. But there are the times you really need it and it’s just not working. Jabber/XMPP has a distributed network but it falls short on the lack of a decent client and users.
  • Integration with Social Web: I often get invites to events via Facebook these days and many of my friends also maintain blogs or “Twitters”. It would be great for these to be integrated into IM: after all IM is a social utility.
  • Selectively Online: Until recently, it has been impossible to talk to people on MSN Messenger without first coming online. That means when you just want a bit of help with your maths homework on matrix transformation, you open yourself up to conversations with the people you met at summer camp five years ago or a distant cousin, who as much as you’d love to chat to, the assignment is due in in a couple of hours. It’s why college students both love and hate IM as it is built for procrastination. These days, you can “appear offline” in order to achieve the same effect, but wouldn’t it be great if there was some way of appearing online to just your maths class?
  • Smarter Statuses: You might be reading about the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands or the history of the Circle Line on the London Underground. Or perhaps you’re filling in a tax return online and setting up direct debits on your bank website. In the first case, you probably don’t mind being distracted, but in the second case it could be a costly distraction. It would be fantastic if a smarter IM programme could try and work out whether you want to be distracted. If I’m working on a 10,000-word essay due in tomorrow morning, the IM programme could be more subtle: silencing alerts and displaying messages as a system tray icon rather than a flashing taskbar item perhaps.

Online Social Networks and Email

The Economist runs a fantastic article this week about online social networks. The article compares online social networks today to web-based email services last decade.

I think it’s interesting how Facebook isn’t actually worth much; the biggest asset of Facebook perhaps is the social graph. This is the “web” of connection between different people. I’ve discussed this in the past, my online social graph lives on Facebook. This is why I would instantly switch to an IM client which utilised Facebook’s social graph with a seamless interface to other IM networks.

But it is true that the quality of social graphs tend to decrease over time. It takes time and effort to update your social graph which nobody does. I’ve actually seen it in my usage of Facebook applications. Some applications will ask you questions about your friends and probably more often than not, I barely even know the person it’s asking me about.

But it looks like the guys at Mozilla Thunderbird have a fantastic new vision for e-mail as an online social network:

“E-mail in the wider sense is the most important social network,” says David Ascher, who manages Thunderbird, a cutting-edge open-source e-mail application, for the Mozilla Foundation, which also oversees the popular Firefox web browser.

That is because the extended in-box contains invaluable and dynamically updated information about human connections. On Facebook, a social graph notoriously deteriorates after the initial thrill of finding old friends from school wears off. By contrast, an e-mail account has access to the entire address book and can infer information from the frequency and intensity of contact as it occurs. Joe gets e-mails from Jack and Jane, but opens only Jane’s; Joe has Jane in his calendar tomorrow, and is instant-messaging with her right now; Joe tagged Jack “work only” in his address book. Perhaps Joe’s party photos should be visible to Jane, but not Jack.

He goes on to talk about privacy:

This kind of social intelligence can be applied across many services on the open web. Better yet, if there is no pressure to make a business out of it, it can remain intimate and discreet. Facebook has an economic incentive to publish ever more data about its users, says Mr Ascher, whereas Thunderbird, which is an open-source project, can let users minimise what they share. Social networking may end up being everywhere, and yet nowhere.

Facebook Chat in Weeks

From Inside Facebook, “Facebook chat launching in the coming weeks. We’re opening up a new communication channel and enable real time conversation on the site.”

The Chat UI appears at the bottom; looks and works pretty similar to Gmail Chat. You can also pop conversations out into new windows, and possibly in the future there will be Jabber support as well as on-site messaging.

If Facebook could exploit the contents of your MSN/Yahoo/AIM address fields to build a seamless interface to these IM systems but using Facebook friend list, this would be an instant killer app. As it stands, I reckon Facebook IM would probably displace a good proportion of my IM usage.

Windows Live Messenger Down

People across the world have been reporting that Windows Live Messenger, Hotmail and Windows Live sign-on is down across the world. Web Messenger also seems to be down, although Live Search still works.

I get the following message:

We were unable to sign you into Windows Live Messenger at this time. Please try again later.”

Don’t worry, it’s not you… its Microsoft! It does make me wonder whether we put too much trust in Microsoft and one centralised IM server – maybe something decentralised like Jabber is a much better way forward, especially with critical and important IM.

Oddly enough, I found out about the downtime when I saw the traffic from my blog doubling in one page and a few hundred pageviews on one of my old blog posts about MSN Messenger Downtime.

In the mean time, it’s a fantastic time to catch up on work and those tax returns 🙂 Instant Messaging & Facebook is an multi-network IM client similar to Gaim, Trillian, etc. The difference is that it integrates with your Facebook contacts and allows you to talk to them whatever IM network they use.

I really do think this is an application which solves a problem. On Facebook I’ve currently got about 100 contacts – the vast majority of who are “good” contacts who I actually know from school or work. I’ve always been surprised by the fact that people who hate the internet and computers can still be found on Facebook! Meanwhile, my MSN contact list contains about 200 contacts, the vast majority of whom I never speak to any more. What can do is to utilise the fantastic list of contacts you already have on Facebook and allow you to talk to them regardless of which IM network they reside on.

It doesn’t have any of these cool features that MSN Messenger has like games, voice clips and whatever but hey… it does the job.

Via Inside Facebook.

Free Winks and Animated Avatars for MSN Messenger

One of the sillier features of MSN/Windows Live Messenger are the winks and animated display pictures. Winks especially can be quite funny and quite a nice way of saying happy birthday or congratulations to someone. Along with dynamic display pictures (which are animated) , they also have a bit of the "wow, how did ya do that?" effect.


Via, Kiwee (requires IE) is now offering all of it’s content for free (probably for a limited amount of time). This includes:

  • Dynamic Display Pictures which can be customized to your look and which react to the emoticons you use in your instant messages. They animate too!
  • Winks some of which you can customize and add your own message. Some of them you can upload your own photos too!
  • Custom Emoticons, Backgrounds and Regular Display Pictures – these are normally free to use anyway.

So why not: download a few winks and annoy the hell out of your friends!

P.S. I had to think long and hard about the social implications of this post. I trust that this information will not cause the collapse of civilization as we know it from the amount of junk which is going to be flying around on MSN in the next few days. 

Solving Quadratics

I was kinda bored today and as I didn’t want to do my maths homework. My friend, who was on-task was trying to use MSN Search to solve a quadratic and complained it didn’t provide both solutions so I decided to write a little script to solve quadratic equations. Now this isn’t hard at all; it simply involves taking 4 inputs and using the quadratic formula:

Quadratic Formula 

So I wrote my little calculator using Javascript and turned up the font size to make it a little bit more "Web 2.0". I also added a little check which works out the discriminant value of the quadratic equation to determine whether it can actually be solved before solving. In all it took about 10 minutes; the main difficulty was working out the Javascript function to do powers.

Taking Plain Text 

Then I thought back to yesterday where I read a series of articles on Sitepoint about regular expressions which explained it all pretty well. I thought I’d put some of it into practice and create an improved version which allows the user to type in an equation and have the script automatically work out all the terms.

What it does is to take the inputted equation and split it in half on the = character. This gives two terms – one which is assumed to be a constant and one which is assumed to be the actual quadratic meat. This side is then split into it’s individual terms using the characters + and -. A regexp is then run on each term to determine it’s power, and it adds it all up. It took a while to get it to all work and it seems to work pretty well.

Here’s the improved version which takes a plain text input and works out the quadratic equation. It works well in Firefox and Opera. It’s about 70 lines in all and although I could have probably done it in quite a bit less, it works well.

Messenger Script

Now, I was getting really carried away so I decided to write a script which would allow my contacts on MSN Messenger to send me a quadratic equation and my computer would work it out and respond. In fact, the amount of times people ask me to help them solve quadratics is shocking so this could have saved a load of time.

This is mainly a copy and paste of the Javascript from the browser based calculator with a few modifications and hooks to make it work with Windows Live Messenger and Messenger Plus Live.

Get the script here

All in all, nothing particularly revolutionary or exciting, but an afternoon spent where I practised my Javascript, regular expressions and maths all in one.