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

IM applications from the 1970s to 2020

Person using instant message app on a smartphone

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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. 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 town to access these two-way, text-based messages without being logged in on the same PC.

Mark Jenks and Talk

In 1983, Mark Jenks, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 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 and were hosted on private business and school networks.

Internet Relay Chat and Journalism

Created by Jarkko Oikarinen in August 1988, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) made it possible for users to chat in multi-user groups known as channels, send private messages, and share files through a data transfer system.

IRC Chat on Windows 10

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 through television or 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

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.

Commodore 64

Using a text-based system called PETSCII, users sent online messages to each other using a telephone modem and the Quantum Link service. Without the graphics processors or advanced video cards of today, the instant messaging experience of early users was relatively dull; the receiver saw a yellow stripe across the Quantum software signaling they had received a message. The receiver then had the option to respond to or ignore the message.

ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and AIM

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 with IM.

AIM logo

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

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.

Jabber icon

Known as a ​​multi-protocol IM, Jabber united the IMs by acting as a single gateway that accessed multiple IM clients at once. 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 Messenger on a smartphone

Facebook, for example, offered Facebook Chat, where users communicated 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 to 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 2020

As of 2020, billions of people worldwide had 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 way to communicate with, and market to customers. Many companies also use IM as one channel for customer service, often in conjunction with chatbots.