As WorksWithU reported last week, the Gnome application Empathy was set to become the default instant-messaging client in Ubuntu 9.10 upon its release October, replacing Pidgin.  But Ubuntu developers have been reconsidering that decision in the last few days.  Here's the story, with some thoughts.

Last Thursday, a message was sent to the Ubuntu developers list pointing out that the most recent release of Pidgin offers video-chat support and other important features whose absence were a factor in the decision to switch to Empathy.  Other users agreed that it wouldn't hurt to have a new discussion about Pidgin's status in Karmic, even if changes at this point in the development cycle would violate the release's feature freeze.

Empathy advocates responded that the decision to switch to Empathy resulted not from Pidgin's lack of video support as the appeal of Empathy's Telepathy framework, which offers a rich infrastructure for desktop collaboration that Pidgin will likely never implement.  Telepathy's built-in support for remote desktop sharing, for example, was cited as a major advantage over Pidgin.

Does it matter?

My reaction to this heated debate about Empathy vs. Pidgin is to wonder how much it really matters.  After all, regardless of which application ends up being the default client in Karmic and included on the live CD, the other will still be readily available and supported in the Ubuntu repositories.  A few clicks in Add/Remove Applications or apt-get keystrokes are all it takes to placate unhappy users.

On the other hand, the importance of the default software stack to non-geeks and new Ubuntu users should not be underestimated.  Although there may be dozens of instant-messaging clients available for free in the Ubuntu repositories, normal people are going to tend to use whatever is installed by default.

But when it comes to the functionality that normal people are interested in, Empathy and Pidgin are not very different.  They both use libpurple to support all the major chat protocols, and they both have intuitive, beginner-friendly interfaces.

The only real difference is that Pidgin currently offers a few more bells and whistles (which should be implemented in Empathy soon enough), while Empathy provides advanced collaboration tools that, although unavailable in Pidgin itself, are easy enough to replicate using other Ubuntu applications.  Geeks might think it's cool to have desktop sharing built into their messaging client, but 98% of Ubuntu users aren't likely to care--they just want to be able to chat with friends on AIM and MSN, which Pidgin and Empathy do equally well.

For the time being, the jury is still out on whether Ubuntu developers will reverse their decision to go with Empathy in Karmic.  I'd bet they won't, because a change at this point in the development cycle seems unlikely.  But even if they do, I'm not sure it really matters.