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

The IM Industry from the 1970s to the Present

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As academic institutions and research labs became the first venues for computer use in the early 1970s, programmers began to develop means for communicating with others through a system of text-based messaging. This new messaging system allowed people to chat with other users of the same computer or a machine connected on a local network at their respective university.

Those early instant messaging pioneers led the way toward the development of a thriving and competitive instant messenger, or IM for short, market today.

The World's First IMs

Three different IM applications emerged during the 70s and 80s that would serve as the basis for present-day instant messaging.

The first, ​called a peer-to-peer protocol, allowed for communication between two directly connected computers. As developers created a means of networking computers, programmers expanded the peer-to-peer protocol system, allowing users across a campus or even across town at a sister facility to access these two-way, text-based messages without being logged on to the same PC.

Mark Jenks and "Talk"

In 1983, Mark Jenks, a Milwaukee, WI, high school student, built "Talk," a system which allowed students at Washington High School to access a first-generation system of digital bulletin boards and the ability to private message other users. The application, also known as a "talker," required users to sign-in to the network-based application using a handle or screen name. In short order, talkers began popping up across the country, hosted on private business and school networks through the mid-90s.

Internet Relay Chat and Journalism

Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, opened journalism to the potential of internet communications. Created by Jarkko Oikarinen in August 1988, 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 through an opposition-enforced media blackout. Without the ability to send news via television or through wire services, journalists turned to IRC to garner information on the offensive 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

In August, 1982, Commodore International released an 8-bit PC that would revolutionize not only the computer world but the next generation of instant messaging. The Commodore 64, which sold more than 30 million units, making it 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 primitive 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 wasn't too exciting; after sending an online message, the user on the receiving end would see a yellow stripe across the Quantum software signaling they had received a message from another user. That user then had the option of responding or ignoring the message.

Online messages with the Q-Link service, however, resulted in additional per-minute fees when users were billed for their monthly service cost.

ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger and AIM

In the 90s, Quantum Link changed its name to America Online and helped usher in a new era of instant messaging. While ICQ, a text-based messenger, became the first to market itself to the masses in 1996, the debut of ​​AIM in 1997 was a turning point for the industry as thousands of largely young, tech-savvy users leaped at the opportunity to share instant messages with each other.

Yahoo! launched its own ​​Yahoo! Messenger in 1998, followed by MSN from Microsoft in 1999, and a host of others throughout the 2000s. ​​Google Talk was released in 2005.

Multi-Protocol IMs Open Doors

Up until 2000, IM users had no choice but to run multiple IM applications to access friends across different networks. That is until Jabber changed the rules.

Known as a ​​multi-protocol IM, Jabber united the IMs by acting as a single gateway to accessing multiple IM clients at once. Users of such clients could now simultaneously chat with friends on their AIM, Yahoo! and MSN contact lists from a single application. Other multi-protocol clients included Pidgin, Trillian, Adium, and Miranda.

Social Media and the Mobile IM Landscape

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 began offering mobile app versions of their instant messaging service. App marketplaces 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 in order 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.