ICQ, the original instant messenger, turns 20

It could have gone on to greatness. Instead, AOL bought it.

ICQ, the original instant messenger, turns 20

About 20 years ago, I started driving co-workers within listening distance crazy with constant chirps of "Uh oh!" emanating from my laptop. It was all coming from a nifty little program I'd discovered called ICQ, which let me talk to friends in real time. 

Created by a group of Israeli college students who eventually formed the company Mirabilis to support development of the app, ICQ stood for "I seek you" and was intended as a way for Windows users to communicate much in the same way Unix users could send real-time messages. 

It was a pretty basic app, and it lacked a lot of the security we now take for granted. Anyone could message you even if you were not on their friends list. Users were assigned a number rather than a user name like we have on Skype. 

Over time, ICQ added multi-user chat, SMS support and file transfers. In 1998, AOL, which had by then spun off AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) as a stand-alone app for non-AOL subscribers to use, bought Mirabilis for $287 million, plus another $120 million based on performance. This was before the wave of insane megadeals. 

By that point, we had a crowded IM market. We had AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ and a few other also-rans. Trillian came about around then to provide a single interface to all IMs—it now supports Google Talk, Facebook, Twitter, ICQ and other communication apps—but it lacks a lot of the features of the specific messaging apps.

For a while, ICQ thrived and surpassed more than 100 million users. But AOL was a lousy steward. It had an inherent conflict, since it had its own IM program. And with AOL's business going down the tubes in the early part of this decade, it basically neglected ICQ. Mirabilis continued to advance it and develop the software, but AOL didn't lift a finger to promote it.

In 2010, AOL sold Mirabilis to Digital Sky Technologies of Russia, which would later become the Mail.ru group. ICQ, like most instant messengers, has fallen out of favor among American users but remains popular in Russia and other parts of the world. Mail.ru has since converted the app to the mobile market, and now around half of its users are mobile rather than desktops.

It's curious how the overall IM market disintegrated. AIM is dead in the water, and I can't remember the last MSN or Yahoo messenger user I encountered. It seems Skype has become the IM of choice, and not a bad one. But there's no doubt that for Skype to succeed, AIM had to surrender the IM market—and it did.

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