what made ICQ a trailblazer in instant messaging

The ICQ logo in a latte.

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Growing up in the Nineties and early 2000s, AOL Instant Messenger was the IM app that seemed to make instant messaging mainstream. Everyone you knew had an AIM account (which meant you had to have one too).

But AIM, for all of its commercial success, actually wasn’t the first messenger or IM program to hit it big.

That honor goes to ICQ, an instant messenger that AIM, for a number of reasons, overshadowed. ICQ deserves recognition, though, for pioneering some of the best features of IM.

How did ICQ get started, what made it unique, and what happened to ICQ? Let’s take a look.

A simple IM app for Windows

ICQ was launched on the Windows operating system in 1996, the project of four college students (and one of their dads) from Israel.

“ICQ” is meant to represent the words “I seek you.” It’s a phrase that sums up one of the things that made ICQ unique out of the gate: anyone could message you even if you hadn’t connected previously.

Actually finding your friends on the ICQ client was the challenging part. Registered users were assigned a User Identification Number, instead of an alphanumeric username, upon signing up.

The UIN was the only part of your ICQ profile that was public by default, but you could choose to share the email address registered to your account to facilitate people getting in touch with you. Best of all, this info was searchable: a big differentiator for ICQ in its early days.

Centralized conversations

A searchable user directory was just one of ICQ’s unique features. The concept of centralizing real time conversations in a single messaging app was totally new in 1996. AIM offered something similar, but it didn’t debut until a year later.

The timing of ICQ’s launch was critical to its early success, according to founding investor Yossi Vardi.

“If [the founders] came to me a year earlier, not in ’96 but ’95, there would have been too few people who were using the internet,” he said in a 2018 interview. “In ’97, there were already 7 competing products, and 2 years later there were 1,000 competing products.”

Even if timing was crucial, the founders also had to nail the product. And that’s what they did, by designing the ICQ instant messaging platform with user-friendliness top of mind.

Internet chat wasn’t a new concept in 1996. Internet Relay Chat predated ICQ as a one-to-one and one-to-many IM platform. But, first-mover advantage aside, it was more for hobbyists and very early adopters. Among other limitations, you needed to get familiar with a command library to perform simple tasks (e.g., joining a central server).

ICQ, for the first time, presented a fun alternative for real-time chat.

Great design as a core value

Centralizing IM conversations and assigning a unique multi-digit UIN was just part of the puzzle. To help people connect and communicate, ICQ also tapped into clever design elements that enhanced the user experience.

Maybe the best example is how the app depicted users’ presence status. The company’s daisy logo would morph depending on whether you were visible, busy, or offline — showing other people at a glance if they could launch a conversation with you.

Presence is a table-stakes feature in instant messaging services today, but that wasn’t the case in 1996. Tech consultant Jerry Michalski hailed the genius of the ICQ graphical user interface in a 1999 interview.

“The icons [ICQ cofounder Sefi Visiger] invented or something like them are going to become a common visual vocabulary in the next 10 years,” he said. “Think of them as the yield and stop signs of cyberspace.”

What might have been

All of ICQ’s smart, user-friendly features contributed to making the app a smash success. Recognizing that ICQ was something special, AOL bought its parent, Israeli company Mirabilis, for $287 million in 1998.

Following the acquisition, ICQ’s rise continued. From 12 million individual users in 1998, it soared to 40 million in 1999 — and 100 million two years later.

But 2001 would be ICQ’s peak. Its user base declined steadily over the following years, and the platform was sold to a Russian conglomerate called Digital Sky Technologies in 2010.

So, given ICQ’s early success, what happened?

The America Online acquisition was one factor. Even though ICQ was profitable for the internet giant, AOL had by 1997 begun developing AIM as its own Windows app for sending and receiving instant messages. That inevitably took resources away from ICQ.

AIM’s Buddy List was another factor. This was a cornerstone feature for the app — one that was patented even before its commercial launch — which made IM more fun and functional than ICQ’s UIN directory.

Even the geography of the internet may have played a part. As the center of the internet industry, America’s tastes are influential. While ICQ was always popular around the world — a 2021 news story describes how ICQ downloads spiked in Hong Kong that year — AIM owned a bigger market share in the United States.

The future of instant messaging

Despite no longer occupying pole position in the instant messaging world, ICQ is still around. That means it has outlived AIM (retired 2017) Yahoo! Messenger (retired 2018) and MSN Messenger (retired 2014).

Today, ICQ offers many compelling new features such as emoticons, audio messages, cloud synchronization, and support for group chats with thousands of members. It even offers channels, similar to Slack, through which users can broadcast posts to a large audience.

With apps for Android, iOS, Windows, and macOS, ICQ has kept up a respectable user count: 11 million a month, according to mail.ru data.

ICQ’s influence continues to be felt elsewhere in the industry, as well. Great design, presence, a contact list, and the ability to log in from anywhere are common features in the newest versions of modern messenger apps like the Facebook Messenger app — all of which innovations came first in ICQ.

We’ve been inspired by ICQ in developing the chat functionality within illumy: starting with a fast, fluid design that provides an easy way to message more people, more quickly. That was the basic philosophy behind ICQ, the first instant messenger client nearly 30 years ago. It remains just as relevant today.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Yuko Honda.

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