I hope someone can prove me wrong, but there have been no good innovations in the area of many to many online chatting in a LONG time.  I was reminded of this lately since our team attempted to use the Chat room mechanism on the MSN Group page we created for our Whidbey Alpha customers.  I hope someone can prove me wrong, but here are the problems and some potential solutions as I see them. 

1. Authentication
For our purposes this is a must.  If we are going to have a private chat with a group of NDA bound customers we need a way to restrict it to that list.  This immediately rules out a bunch of mechanisms that exist today and is the main reason why our team is stuck with an MSN groups site (I'll have to write another blog to complain about the whole MSN Groups problem.).  This one should be brain dead. I should be able to create a scheduled chat, send out invites with temporary PWs to a select group of people, and only expect those people to be able to join.  

2. Non-Threaded Discussions
Chat rooms are nightmares for having any sort of organized discussions.   What ends up happening is people invent strange ways of referencing to threads that have long since scrolled past.  I've seen people preface their new remarks with everything from the name of the person involved in that discussion to "RE: 6 comments ago: <Insert new comment>" .  This is really lame.  With over 5 people in the room the conversations are bound to be mutli-threaded and dynamic in nature.  Some people seem to think this chaos is fun, but it becomes less so trying to read the transcripts for usable feedback the next day. 

Without thinking too deeply I would propose a system such that when you initiate a new conversation you use one of X available colors to code that conversation (Ok, so I'm not thinking about the colorblind, but stick with me.). Then, when someone is responding to a comment on that thread they hit an enter button coded to that thread with that color so that people can see that this comment is associated with an existing discussion.  New discussions should be highlighted in some way so people know there is a new thread to chat about.  I haven't seen it in action yet, but I think it would be very useful for the feedback sessions we have been using in addition to other many to many situations. 

3. Scheduling A large Group
Without the need for a room that is always open I should be able to schedule a room to be available at a certain time for only the group of people I care about.  This should be similar to a scenario where I want to invite X people to a conference room.  Back to authentication: only those people should be allowed in with their passwords and they should have some sort of alert/reminder that they are due in chat room Y at such a time.

4. "What did I miss?"
So your schedule or your time zone is 30 minutes off from the rest of the world. Why should that prevent you from being able to see the contents of the first 30 minutes. Its out there on a bunch of other machines, why can't they share it with you so you don't have to wait for a transcript to come out before being included.  You could also pretend that you are participating in a chat and wireless connection goes out and you are disconnected.  Currently you are penalized the 5 minutes it may take you to reconnect.  I would love to have all the missing text re-inserted when I start back up again.  This seems like it would be simple enough.  

If I'm wrong about these issues I hope someone will share with me the software that enables these key scenarios.  If I'm right I hope I'm not some sort of lone nut here and other people would also like to implement such a system. 

Thanks,
josh