A Brief History of Instant Messaging

Among its many uses and benefits, the Internet has transformed and simplified how people communicate with each other around the globe. In addition to email, instant messaging has played a large role in bringing people together. From ICQ to AIM, Google Chat to Facebook Chat, Internet users have been able to send messages to each other instantaneously for years.

But where did it all start? Instant messaging has been an evolving idea for a long time, so it’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint its origin. In fact, did you know that instant messaging, or at least an early form of the concept, actually predates the World Wide Web?

Here’s a look at the important advances of instant messaging made over the past 50 years.

Impressive Beginnings

The phrase “instant messaging” entered common usage in the early 1990s, but the concept actually dates back to the mid-1960s. Multi-user operating systems such as the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), which was created at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Computation Center in 1961, allowed up to 30 users to log in at the same time and send messages to each other. The system, which is perhaps closer to what we now think of as email, had hundreds of registered users from MIT and other New England colleges by 1965.

In the 1970s, programmers worked on peer-to-peer protocol, allowing universities and research labs to establish simple communication between users of the same computer.

The Zephyr Notification Service, also created at MIT through Project Athena in the 1980s, used Unix to locate and send messages to users. Some institutions, including MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, still use the service.

The 1980s also saw great interest in the bulletin board system, or BBS — a system that allowed users to use a terminal program to upload and download software and exchange direct messages with others.

In 1982, Commodore International released the Commodore 64 PC. The Commodore 64 included an Internet service, Quantum Link (also known as Q-Link), which came to be known as America Online (AOL) in the ’90s. Q-Link users could pay a monthly fee to send text-based messages to others via modem, and the receiver had the option of responding to or ignoring the messages.

CompuServe’s CB Simulator, created in 1980 to simulate citizens band radio through text-based messages and user handles, is considered the first service dedicated to online chat.

The Rise of the Instant Messaging Market

CompuServe CB Simulator

In 1996, Israeli company Mirabilis launched ICQ, a text-based messenger that was the first to really reach a widespread market of online users. ICQ allowed for multi-user chats, file transfers, a searchable user directory and more. AOL acquired Mirabilis and ICQ in 1998, later selling it to Digital Sky Technologies in 2010. The latest version of ICQ includes Facebook integration, mobile sync and further updates.

The true turning point, however, occurred in 1997, when AOL launched AIM, attracting a new generation of tech-savvy Internet users. When you think of AIM, you can probably hear the sounds of opening and closing doors when friends appeared and disappeared on your Buddy List. Like the services before it, AIM allowed users to send messages to each other, and included user profiles, away messages and icons for more engagement. With AIM also came the development of different bots, such as StudyBuddy and SmarterChild (which have since been retired), with whom users could interact. By 2005, AIM dominated the instant messaging market with 53 million users. Chat rooms, in which multiple people could IM with each other, were another popular AOL feature.

Yahoo launched Yahoo! Messenger in 1998, originally under the name Yahoo! Pager. Used with a user’s Yahoo! ID, Yahoo! Messenger included customized “IMVironments,” address book integration and custom status messages. Like AOL, Yahoo had a chat room service.

Pidgin, founded as “Gaim” in 1998 as an open-source instant messaging client, allowed users to reach contacts on several operating systems. In 2007, it was estimated that Pidgin had 3 million users.

Microsoft released MSN Messenger in 1999. A press release from its launch read, “MSN Messenger Service tells consumers when their friends, family and colleagues are online and enables them to exchange online messages and email with the more than 40 million users of the MSN Hotmail TM Web-based email service as well as with people using AOL Instant Messenger.” Microsoft renamed the service Windows Live Messenger in 2005, adding photo sharing capabilities, social network integration and games. In 2009, the company announced more than 330 million active users every month.

Instant Messaging Language

A major aspect of the rise of instant messaging in the 1990s was the shorthand language and acronyms that came with it:

  • BRB: Be Right Back

  • LOL: Laugh(ing) Out Loud

  • OMG: Oh My God/Gosh

  • ROFL: Rolling On Floor Laughing

  • TTYL: Talk To You Later

  • TY: Thank You

  • NP: No Problem

  • OTP: On The Phone

  • and many, many more.

IM language became so ubiquitous that it’s completely common usage today, even in emails and SMS mobile text messaging.

Instant Messaging in the 2000s

In 2000, Internet users took notice of Jabber, a multi-protocol instant messenger that acted as a single gateway for users to chat with friends and access their buddy lists on all of the big networks at the time: AIM, Yahoo and MSN. Jabber.org is the original IM service based on Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP). Most recently, in August 2012, Jabber disabled new registrations due to user abuse and denial of service attacks.

Apple developed iChat, or iChat AV, for its Mac OS X operating system in 2002. Mac users could integrate their address books and Apple Mail in a native app compatible with AIM. In 2011, Apple announced iMessage for the updated Mac OS. Both iChat and iMessage were replaced earlier this year by OS X Mountain Lion’s Messages, allowing users to send unlimited messages to almost any Apple product.

Founded in 2003, Skype allows Internet users to communicate with others through video, voice and instant messaging. The instant messaging aspect of the service, while perhaps not its most popular function compared to video conferences, is used by many. In July 2011, Skype announced integration with Facebook, so users could see Facebook friends on Skype and see Facebook Chat through both services.

Meebo began in 2005 as an instant messaging service accessed via web browser. Before it was acquired by Google last June, it supported Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AIM, ICQ, and later MySpaceIM, Facebook Chat, Google Talk and others. Meebo had also developed mobile versions for iPhone and Android.

Social Media Chat

In 2005, Google released Google Talk, often referred to as Google Chat or Gchat. Available in various web, native and mobile applications, Google Talk always appears in a Gmail user’s window, allowing for easy communication with email contacts. The service includes text-based messaging, voice calls and video conferences. Most recently, Google Talk has been integrated with Google+, allowing users to chat while in the social network.

Myspace developed MySpaceIM in 2006 as an addition to its social platform — the first social network to do so. Users could instant message with friends on their desktops, as well as online starting in 2009, through MySpaceIM for Web. Later the service was integrated with Skype.

Facebook released Facebook Chat in 2008, allowing users to instant message one friend or multiple people through the groups feature while logged into the social network. In 2011, Facebook announced the incorporation of video in Chat — integrated with Skype — and has also released the mobile app Facebook Messenger.

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