What ever happened to AIM?

America Online controlled the entire digital world in the mid-1990s, but nothing can last forever. AOL was founded in the early 1980s as Control Video Corporation and focused exclusively on an online service for the Atari 2600. By the middle of the decade, however, the management restructured the company as an online service provider for newcomers to the Internet.

The beginnings

This early Internet project was hugely successful, thanks largely to the AOL beginners web portal, which included casual and classic games, news and sports sections, chat rooms, funding tips, and more.

At a time when it wasn’t immediately clear what to do when you were online, the AOL web portal was a good place to start for many.

One of my earliest computer memories involves AIM.

Arguably one of the best tools that could be spun out of the core AOL experience was the standalone instant messaging client that is affectionately known as AIM. The program was tacitly released for Microsoft Windows in early 1997, allowing users to register and create an online handle Buddy listsand chat with friends in near real time.

One of my earliest computer memories involves AIM. It was 1998 and I had just received my first computer for Christmas. After the local ISP set me up with a Road Runner cable modem, I made my way to the races. The first thing I did, of course, was to download AIM and connect with my best friend who lived a few minutes away. “Look mom, I’m chatting with Keith on the computer and it’s live!” “Oh, that’s neat …” she said before going back into the living room, obviously not amused.

I was banned. Sure, I’d tinkered in chat rooms before, but it was always with random people. Seeing when people you know in real life signed up was the next cool level.

To be honest, it wasn’t that different from other chat apps like ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Herald of the Era. They all achieved basically the same thing, allowing you to create buddy lists and chat with friends.

AIM’s dirty little secret

The biggest difference, and perhaps the dirty little secret about AIM that you may not know, is that AOL never commissioned it to be created.

GOAL was that idea from Barry Appelman, a Unix programmer who was hired by AOL in 1993. Unlike other companies of the time, AOL was unique in that it knew a lot about its account holders, including when they signed up and what users they were. Appelman used this knowledge base to develop the Friends list, a tool that shows when users are online.

He and two other employees later used the buddy list as the basis for an instant messaging tool that was to become AIM without the approval of AOL executives.

Needless to say, they weren’t happy about the unapproved project. Executives in particular didn’t like that AIM was violating its subscription-based model they’d been developing for years. Eventually, however, the product team managed to convince executives to move forward, and AIM was released in 1997 and started like wildfire.

By 2001, AIM had reached 36 million active users, and by 2007 when the iPhone arrived, the service had 63 million users. Those were impressive numbers, but certainly not dominant. For example, Microsoft had managed to attract 294 million users to its MSN Messenger service, even though that was more of a global audience, while AIM was a more US-centric affair by comparison.

After the triumph of Y2K, AOL and the internet felt unstoppable. But as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And fall, AOL did. One of the biggest shortcomings was managing AIM’s success and failing to see the value of a free product.

The mobile revolution

In the early 2000s, there were more and more mobile devices. Nokia was an early leader in the cell phone movement when the first adopters devoured the Nokia 5110 around the turn of the century. Motorola also had some success with the original V3 Razr, which helped SMS grow. It didn’t take long for text messages on cell phones to skyrocket.

Later, BlackBerry began to become popular among business people who needed access to email on the go. Then, in 2007, the arrival of the iPhone made it clear that the next generation of users would primarily communicate online with their phones.

PC users had gone nowhere and were still there and busy communicating with each other, but even they were approached by social media companies like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and even Google, inviting people to chat with Google over Gmail to chat.

Courtesy of the old school AIM Chat App Project

AOL’s top brass never threw its weight behind AIM. The program’s design team has reportedly developed several innovative features behind closed doors, but most never made it into public versions of the software.

In his credit, AOL released a version of AIM for Palm devices, the iPhone and iPad Touch, but it was too little, too late. While it technically worked, the magic of AIM didn’t carry over. Unsurprisingly, it never caught on.

In early 2014, AOL announced it had wiped out its AIM employees as part of company-wide layoffs, and by 2017 AOL announced that it would be closing the doors for its long-running chat program for good. The plug was officially pulled on December 15, 2017.

But that’s not the end of the AIM story. After the main target shuts down, Wildman Productions, a nonprofit gaming development team, revived the app as AIM Phoenix. Since it’s no longer connected to AOL, you won’t have access to your old friends lists.

Phoenix screenshot

But that gives you a chance to start over and maybe come up with a name that you couldn’t get before. Or you can just register the name you used earlier.

heritage

It would be more than naive to preach about a second coming from AIM or ICQ. These programs had their time in the spotlight, but their better years are far in retrospect at this point. Instead, it’s most constructive to remember these types of apps for what they did and what they taught us.

AIM and similar chat programs of the late 1990s and early 2000s were instrumental in making it easier for millions of early Internet users to digitally socialize.

We were pioneers in developing cutting-edge technology and that felt powerful at the time, especially for those who lacked traditional social skills.

In chat apps we learned how to get in touch with our colleagues while improving our keyboard skills. I personally have had several online relationships that I have to this day, well over 20 years later, some with people I have never met in person. Without programs like AIM, these people probably wouldn’t be part of my life today.

At the same time, AOL managers could have put their full weight behind AIM and found a way to dominate messaging and become what WhatsApp is today. Had that happened, AOL might still be relevant today.

TechSpot’s “What Ever Happened …”

The story of software apps and companies that at one point went mainstream and were widely used, but are now gone. We cover the most important areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.



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