How Facebook Killed Online Chat

In the early days of the internet, online conversations were an event. The technology was novel, and it was suddenly possible to socialize with a whole bunch of friends at a distance, all at once. No more calling your friends one by one, you could talk to them all at the same time!

Many of us would spend hours on IRC, or pull all-nighters bantering on MSN Messenger or AIM. But then, something happened, and many of us found ourselves having shorter conversations online, if we were having any at all. Thinking back to my younger days, and comparing them with today, I think I’ve figured out what it is that’s changed.

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IRC Client On Bare Metal

In the beginning, there was the BIOS, and it was good. A PC’s BIOS knows how to set up the different hardware devices, grab a fixed part of a hard drive, load it, and run it. That’s all you need. While it might be all you need, it isn’t everything people want, so a consortium developed UEFI, which can do all the things a normal BIOS can’t. Among other things, UEFI can load code for the operating system over the network instead of from the hard drive.

In true hacker fashion, [Phillip Tennen] thought, “Does it have to be an operating system?” The answer, of course, is no. It could be an IRC client.┬áHe chose Rust to implement everything. While UEFI does provide a network stack, it isn’t very easy to use, apparently. It also provides support for a mouse. [Phillip] ported his GUI toolkit library over, and then the rest is just building an IRC client.

The client isn’t the easiest to use because, after all, this is a lark. Why would you want to do this? On the other hand, we can think of reasons we might want to take control of a UEFI motherboard and use it for something. If you want to do that, this project is a great template to jump-start your endeavors.

We’ve looked at the UEFI system a few times. Or, you can use it to play DOOM.

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A computer green screen image of an IRC message of the day

IRC Server For MS-DOS

The recent flurry of projects based around Internet Relay Chat (IRC) should be a fair indication that the beloved protocol is not going anywhere. Now, thanks to [Mike Chambers], you can add to the IRC ecosystem by hosting your very own MS-DOS based IRC server.

This port of ngIRCd (Next Generation IRC Daemon) has already been spun up on 8088-based PCs running at just 4.77MHz, but you’ll still need at least 640KB of RAM. If your vintage IRC server takes off, you might want to think about dropping in an 10MHz V20 for a bit of a performance boost. Even so, it’s impressive that this server can get up on the 40-year-old IBM 5150, and should absolutely scream on an AT-class system.

The limitations of the 16-bit platform means that SSL and ZLIB are unsupported, and Mike has capped total connections at 50 in his port (however, this limitation can be adjusted by rebuilding from source, should you want to find out how far 640KB of RAM can take you). You’ll also need a few other things to get your server up and running, such as a packet driver for your network card and an mTCP configuration file.

Setting up your own IRC server is arguably a right rite of passage for most hackers and tinkerers, but getting this up and running on a decades-old beige box would make for a fun weekend project. [Mike] has all the juicy details on GitHub, and you can check out a test server running the latest build over at irc.xtulator.com.

Also, don’t forget to visit the #hackaday IRC channel over on irc.libera.chat.

[Thanks Sudos for the hot tip]

IRC Will Never Die

The big kerfuffle in the open source world this week surrounds the biggest IRC server operator, Freenode. Wherever the dust settles, myriad important open source projects use Freenode’s IRC servers for their main channel of user feedback, and a number of vibrant communities call or called Freenode home. What you would call a 3D printer, and most of the software that drives it, for instance, was brainstormed up in Freenode’s #reprap. If you want help with a Linux distribution, you’ll be set straight within a few minutes in the relevant channel, because the people who wrote, packaged, or maintain it are probably on Freenode waiting to chat.

But suppose Freenode burns to the ground tomorrow, as some are suggesting. So what? My take is that is doesn’t matter. Freenode doesn’t own IRC, setting up an IRC server is essentially trivial, and what’s really important is the online community — they can just pick up and move somewhere else with very little hassle.

This is not to say that we don’t all benefit from the diligence that Freenode’s volunteer administrators and operators have donated to the cause over the years. IRC servers don’t run themselves, and Freenode’s admins fought and won an epic battle with spammers a couple years back. Keeping IRC running at scale is a different thing than setting up something for your friends, and so the Freenode folks definitely deserve our thanks.

But look, IRC is an old protocol and it’s a simple protocol. It’s so simple, in fact, that writing an IRC bot is just a few dozen lines in Python, using no external libraries. All you need to do is send plain text over a socket. You can do this — it makes a great networking hello world.

IRC is fun for hackers, but if you want a user-friendly GUI client, you ridiculously many to choose from. There are even no-install web clients if you just want to dip your toes in. Heck, you could install your own server in an hour or so.

So saying that the demise of Freenode is the end of IRC is a lot like saying that the end of Hotmail was the end of e-mail. In the grand scheme of things, almost nobody actually uses IRC — Freenode has 78,000 users while Slack has 10 million — and IRC users are very savvy, if not full-on geeky. These are the sort of people who can probably find the server field in a menu and change it from irc.freenode.net to irc.whatever.org.

In addition to our traditional #hackaday channel on irc.freenode.net, there’s also a channel set up on irc.libera.chat as well. There isn’t much action in either — IRC tends to be a slow conversation, so don’t freak out if someone responds to you an hour later — but if you want to swing by, we’re there. IRC will never die!

2021 Hackaday Prize Begins!

If you missed our announcement, this year’s Hackaday Prize is on! We’ve all had a rough year and a half, and it’s lead a lot of us to think seriously about our world. How would you want to change it going forward? Fifty entrants will rethink, refresh, and rebuild their way into $500, and the Grand Prize is $25,000. Get hacking!

Freenode Debacle Prompts Staff Exodus, New Network

It’s no secret that Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has lost some of its appeal in recent years. These days there’s plenty of free chat platforms boasting slick web interfaces and smartphone push notifications, to say nothing of social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The ability to communicate with like minded individuals from all over the planet in real-time is now something we take for granted, so it’s little surprise that newer and flashier protocols and services have steadily eroded the IRC user base.

But there’s often a hidden cost to using these more modern communication protocols. A lack of operational transparency naturally leads to concerns over monitoring and censorship, which makes such services a poor match for the free and open source community. As such, many open projects have eschewed these newer and more popular services for IRC networks that were developed and maintained by the community itself. Among these, the best-known and most respected is Freenode. Originally started as a Linux support channel in 1995, Freenode grew to become the defacto communication and support tool for free and open source projects of all shapes and sizes, and by 2013 had officially become the largest and most active IRC network in the world.

Unfortunately, the incredible legacy of Freenode is now being jeopardized by what former staff members are describing as nothing short of a hostile takeover. Through a complex series of events which actually started several years ago, control of Freenode has been taken from the community and put into the hands of an enigmatic and wealthy entrepreneur who claims his ultimate goal is to revolutionize IRC and return it to the forefront of online communication. Here’s where it gets weird.

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Is It A Lawnmower? Is It An RPi IRC Server? It’s Both!

Although first presented to the world as an April 1st joke, [Jotun]’s IRC-enabled lawnmower began life as the result of casual bantering among folk on the Undernet IRC network. When the project worked out better than probably anyone could have expected, it was presented as the Green Future of Undernet on April 1st. Joking aside, the project actually is pretty interesting and well-executed.

At the core is a Remington RM110, a fairly basic gas-powered push lawnmower. After years of use it wasn’t running so well any more, so [Jotun] took it apart and cleaned the engine, despite never having done so before. With that grimy task completed, a subsequent remark in an Undernet channel about linking the lawnmower to Undernet led to a Raspberry Pi 4 and various other components being ordered.

The view from the driver’s seat with the server box installed.

The write-up by [Jotun] provides a pretty good overview of the project’s history: from getting the Raspberry Pi 4 working with a UPS add-on, to getting the IRC server software working and serving clients, and putting a weather- and dust-proof box together with enough filtered ventilation to ensure that the freshly mowed grass doesn’t clog up the Raspberry Pi while keeping everything cool.

As a bonus, the system tracks the wheel revolutions so that [Jotun] can keep track of the square kilometers of grass he has cut, and reports this with an IRC bot to anyone interested on Undernet, in the channel #lawnmower. The only thing that isn’t working well yet so far is the live camera feed from the lawnmower, due to the obvious vibration issues, but [Jotun] reckons that can be solved in time.

 

Life After IRC – Your Move, Mozilla!

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Internet Relay Chat protocol (IRC) and it is hard to imagine that [Jarkko Oikarinen] could have foreseen the impact his invention would one day have on the world as we know it. How it would turn from a simple, decentralized real-time communication system for university-internal use into a global phenomenon, connecting millions of users all over the world, forming its own subculture, eventually reaching mainstream status in some parts of the world — including a Eurodance song about a bot topping European music charts.

Those days of glory, however, have long been gone, and with it the version of an internet where IRC was the ideal choice. What was once a refuge to escape the real world has since become the fundamental centerpiece of that same real world, and our ways of communicating with each other has moved on with it. Nevertheless, despite a shift in mainstream and everyday communication behavior, IRC is still relevant enough today, and going especially strong in the open source community, with freenode, as one of the oldest networks, being the most frequently used one, along some smaller ones like OFTC and Mozilla’s own dedicated network. But that is about to change.

Last month, Mozilla’s envoy [Mike Hoye] announced the decommissioning of irc.mozilla.org within “the next small number of months, and moving all communication to a new, or at least different system. And while this only affects Mozilla’s own, standalone IRC network and projects, and not the entire open source community, it is a rather substantial move, considering Mozilla’s overall reach and impact on the internet itself — past, present, and now even more the future. Let’s face it, IRC has been dying for years, but there is also no genuine alternative available yet that could truly replace it. With Mozilla as driving force, there is an actual chance that they will come up with a worthy replacement that transforms IRC’s spirit into the modern era.

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