In the words of its creators, BitlBee is "An IRC to other chat networks gateway". It provides an IRC server (typically on your own machine, although public BitlBee servers do exist) which contains a control channel (typically called #bitlbee, by an amazing coincidence) in which you go about your IM business. When you first start to use BitlBee, this channel contains only a bot (typically called root). By speaking to the bot, you set up your accounts on various IM networks (currently OSCAR (ICQ and AIM), MSN, Jabber and Yahoo! (yes, these are the same ones that Gaim supports (minus IRC, naturally), and this is no coincidence: BitlBee is apparently descended from Gaim)); contacts from these networks show up in the control channel, just as they would do on a real IRC channel. You can talk to them in channel by addressing them with "nickname: ", or you can use /msgs.

Perhaps a short example is in order:

<@resiak> account add jabber username@jabber.org.uk/bitlbee p4ssw0rd
<@root> Account successfully added
<@resiak> account list
<@root>  0. MSN, username@hotmail.com (connected)
<@root>  1. JABBER, username@jabber.org.uk/bitlbee
<@root> End of account list
<@resiak> account on 1
<@root> JABBER - Logging in: Connecting
<@root> JABBER - Logging in: Connected
<@root> JABBER - Logging in: Requesting Authentication Method
<@root> JABBER - Logging in: Authenticating
<@root> JABBER - Logged in
-!- barney [barney@jabber.org] has joined #bitlbee
-!- mode/#bitlbee [+v barney] by root
<@resiak> barney: Ahoy!
<+barney> resiak: Piss off.  I hate you.  Get back into your geek swamp.
-!- barney [barney@jabber.org] has quit [Leaving...]
<@resiak> blist
<@root> Nick              User/Host/Network                         Status
<@root> fred              fred@hotmail.com (MSN)                    Online
<@root> retarded_name     retarded_name@hotmail.com (MSN)           Online
<@root> 2 buddies (2 available, 0 away, 0 offline)
<@resiak> rename retarded_name betty
-!- retarded_name is now known as betty
<@root> Nick successfully changed

And so on. Particularly nice is the fact that people who are away are de-voiced — since most IRC clients report changes in mode, this acts as a neat going-away notification. (Since the control channel is not moderated (+m), this does not stop them from speaking: it merely serves as an easy reminder of who is away. In the example above, if barney had been set to away, there would be no + before his nick when he speaks. Of course, your IRC client's method of displaying this may vary.) Other neat things include saving people's buddy icons so that you can, if you wish, rig up some means to look at them. (One person I read of has set up a CGI-driven buddy list page, which is rather cool.) The documentation claims that it is possible to have group chats (or whatever the various IM networks call them these days). These take place in new channels, as you might expect. (Details of how to start them are in the help.) But the absolute killer feature is that I can now keep MSN, AIM, Jabber and IRC in irssi in a screen(1), happily running detached at home, while I gallavant around, ssh-ing and reattaching merrily wherever I go, rather than only being able to do that with IRC. Sure, I could have just used centericq, but I could never make it work, it has a hideous interface, and I'd be running irssi for IRC anyway...

BitlBee is designed to be used via inetd, although there exits a bitlbeed in case you can't use inetd. In my happy Debian paradise, setting it up was as simple as apt-get install bitlbee, followed by connecting to localhost:6667 in irssi. For those of you using lesser systems, it can be found at bitlbee.org, if not within your distribution's package repository. There is even a Win32 port, such as it is, but I can't say I've ever used it.

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