IRC, ICQ, AIM, and More: A History of Instant Messaging

IM Applications from the 1970s to 2019

Person using instant message app on a smartphone

Getty Images

In the early 1970s, academic institutions and research labs were the first venues for computer use. Programmers there developed means for communicating with each other through a system of text-based messaging on the same computer, or on a machine connected through a local network.

These instant messaging (IM) pioneers led the way to the thriving instant messenger market we see in 2019. The IM applications that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s served as the basis for present-day IMing.

The World's First IMs

Peer-to-peer protocol enabled communication between two directly connected computers. As developers created networked computers, programmers expanded the peer-to-peer protocol system, allowing users across a campus or even across town to access these two-way, text-based messages without being logged onto the same PC.

Mark Jenks and Talk

In 1983, Mark Jenks, a Milwaukee, Wis., high school student, built Talk, a system that allowed students at Washington High School to access digital bulletin boards and send private messages to each other. The application, also known as a "talker," required users to sign in using a handle or screen name. Into the mid-1990s, additional talkers were developed across the country, hosted on private business and school networks.

Internet Relay Chat and Journalism

IRC Chat on Windows 10

Created by Jarkko Oikarinen in August 1988, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) allowed users to chat in multi-user groups known as "channels," sending private messages and sharing files through a data transfer system.

The internet and IRC impacted the realm of politics and government on August 19, 1991, when a coup d'état attempt was staged on the capital of the Soviet Union. The opposition, a group of Communist Party leaders protesting a recent union treaty negotiated by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, prevented journalists from reporting on the events by imposing a media blackout. Without the ability to send news via television or through wire services, journalists turned to IRC to get information from colleagues and eyewitnesses in the field. IRC was also used by journalists to share news during the first Gulf War.

Commodore 64 and Quantum Link

Commodore 64

In 1982, Commodore International released an 8-bit PC that revolutionized the computer world as well as the next generation of instant messaging. The Commodore 64, the best-selling single PC model of all time, offered home users the opportunity to access electronic computing with over 10,000 commercial software titles, including the internet service Quantum Link, or Q-Link.

Using a text-based system called PETSCII, users could send online messages to each other via a telephone modem and the Quantum Link service. Without the graphic processors or advanced video cards of today, the instant messaging experience of early users was relatively dull; the receiver would see a yellow stripe across the Quantum software signaling they had received a message. The receiver then had the option of responding or ignoring the message.

ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, and AIM

AIM logo

In 1991, Quantum Link changed its name to America Online and helped usher in a new era of instant messaging. Later in the decade, ICQ, a text-based messenger, was the first to market to the masses, and ​​AIM attracted mainly young, tech-savvy users, who leaped at the opportunity to communicate via IM.

Yahoo! launched ​​Yahoo! Messenger in 1998, followed by MSN from Microsoft in 1999, and a host of others throughout the 2000s. ​​Google Talk (now known as Google Hangouts) was released in 2005.

Multi-Protocol IMs Change the Rules

Jabber icon

Until 2000, IM users had no choice but to run multiple IM applications to access friends across different networks. At that time, Jabber came along, enabling users to simultaneously chat with friends on their AIM, Yahoo!, and MSN contact lists from a single application. Known as a ​​multi-protocol IM, Jabber united the IMs by acting as a single gateway to accessing multiple IM clients at once. Other multi-protocol clients included Pidgin, Trillian, Adium, and Miranda.

Social Media and the Mobile IM Landscape

Facebook Messenger on a smartphone

With the rise of social networking and services such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as the shift to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, instant messaging has endured and evolved.

Facebook, for example, offered Facebook Chat, allowing its users to communicate with one another through an IM-style interface. Facebook Chat offered an API that allowed third-party applications such as AIM and Adium to connect to the service so users could continue to centralize their various IM services; however, in 2015 Facebook closed the API and third-party apps were no longer able to access its IM service, which was renamed simply Facebook Messenger.

Mobile platforms lent themselves well to IM communications, and well-known IM services offered mobile app versions of their instant messaging service. The app marketplace exploded with a variety of new IM applications as well.

On PCs, web-based technology advanced considerably in the late 2000s and 2010s, and it became unnecessary to download and install an application to use popular IM services such as Yahoo! Messenger, AIM, and ICQ. 

IM services also tapped into new forms of communications that opened up through the internet, including VoIP and internet phone calls, as well as SMS texting. IMs and applications like Skype and FaceTime expanded video chatting as well.

Instant Messaging in 2019

As of mid-2019, billions of people worldwide have IM accounts. Top IM applications include WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, as well as WeChat and QQ Mobile, both popular in China. Users are also IMing on Skype, Snapchat, Viber, Line, and Telegram, as well as others, such as Wrike and Slack, designed specifically for business use. Many IM applications include the ability to video chat, send attachments, and other enhanced features.

Companies, political organizations, and other entities are increasingly using IM as a means for communicating with, and marketing to, customers. Many companies also use IM as one channel for customer service, often in conjunction with chatbots.