ICQ Is Shutting Down (Also: ICQ Is Still Around)

Michael Kan, PC Mag:

On Friday, the ICQ website posted a simple message: “ICQ will stop working from June 26.” It now recommends users migrate to the messaging platforms from VK, the Russian social media company that acquired ICQ from AOL in 2010, but under a different corporate name.

It’s an unceremonious end for a software program that helped kick off instant messaging on PCs in the 1990s. ICQ, which stands for “I Seek You,” was originally developed at an Israeli company called Mirabilis before AOL bought it in 1998 for $407 million.

Perhaps no area of computing was more disrupted by the smartphone revolution than messaging. Pre-mobile, “instant messaging” had a surprising number of popular platforms. AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) was tops amongst my cohort, almost certainly because Apple’s iChat — the Mac-only predecessor to the app we now call Messages — started in 2002 exclusively as an AIM client. But Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, and ICQ were all popular too. The list of protocols that the popular Mac chat app Adium supported was very long.

They all worked more or less the same way, and using any of these protocols was a lot like messaging today with iMessage, WhatsApp, or Signal. But there was one big difference: with the old “instant” messengers, you were only available while your computer was online. And even then, you could set your “status” — green for “sure, hit me up, I’m free”, and red for “I’m online, but don’t bother me right now”. And if you quit your messaging client or, you know, closed your laptop, poof, you were offline and unavailable.

If you wanted to contact someone asynchronously, you sent them an email. If you wanted to chat with messaging, you both needed to be online simultaneously. Modern messaging is like a cross between email and instant messaging: you can chat, live, just like with instant messaging, but you can send a new message any time you want. There is no distinction between your being “online” or “offline”. You are just an identity with modern messaging, not a presence.

You can see why modern messaging platforms took over. Always-available protocols were destined to win out over only-available-when-you’re-logged-in protocols. And the nature of how smartphones work compared to PCs made the transition swift. But you can also see why classic instant messaging platforms evoke nostalgia: it was nice to be able to go offline.

Saturday, 1 June 2024