Why a contact list?

In most IM applications the contact list is the primary window. However, I think that a transparent, borderless, buttonless window makes for a very poor primary window. The instinctive solution would be to make the contact list larger, less customizable, and more conveying of functionality… but is this really what the contact list needs? Would the contact list somehow be a better way to display buddy presence if it was larger and contained more buttons? I don’t think so. Why, then, is the contact list our primary window?

Also, is all the information on your contact list equally important? Is there information on the contact list that isn’t important at all? Are there people on your contact list whose presence you care more about? Think about it for a bit. There are three types of buddies: 1) Those whose presence is very important 2) Those whose presence is sometimes important 3) Those whose presence is rarely important. Why are all those clumped together in a giant list? Why do I need to keep them all on my screen in this funky tall and skinny window?

Furthermore, if the contact list is such a natural window, why are people so obsessed with customizing it? Why do users feel the need to camouflage the buddy list into their desktop or modify it to blend in with their system in some way? Why aren’t the same demands applied to an FTP client or a web browser? I’ve certainly never seen someone tweaking out iPhoto to make it match the desktop picture. It’s because that window HAS to be on our screens so that we can keep dibs on our buddies whose presence is very important. It has to be there, we have no choice, so lets do our best to make it blend in.

So, is there a better way to do this? What if we removed the responsibility of being the primary window from our contact list? What if there was some way for us to see type 1 contacts all the time, have type 2 contacts within easy reach, and have type 3 contacts retrievable when necessary with a bit more work? What if we didn’t have to work so hard at blending that awkward little reject of a window into our computing environment? What if we could IM, better than we do today, without a contact list window at all?

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