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Ready... AIM... Goodbye

As we age, there are seminal moments that happen that close a chapter of our youth and remind us of how the world has changed. For example, Leonard Nimoy's passing is a reminder that anything related to Star Trek, The Original Series is coming to an end. Recently, my youngest child got his driver's license, meaning that I'm staring empty nest syndrome in the face, ending the child raising portion of my life.

Last week I got another reminder of how much the world has changed when I heard that the application that pioneered messaging, AOL Instant Messenger, more commonly known as "AIM," was being shut down. Earlier this month, Verizon, the parent company of AOL, informed the world that as of December 15, 2017, AIM would be no more. I understand there were a few messaging apps before it, such as ICQ, but those didn't gain the same popularity as AIM, partially because AIM let users pick their own user ID, like "zkerravala" versus ICQ, which gave users a random set of digits.

I think people often forget how big America Online was. Despite a ridiculously expensive pricing model, it was the de facto standard Internet access for millions of people. I remember businesses having to develop AOL "key words" to let users of the application find things faster. For example, the keyword "Ford" would take you to the car company's website. Today everyone knows how to use Google, but the idea was brilliant at the time as it made the Internet a lot less intimidating.


AIM was the chat application that AOL used. At one time, it was tied to the AOL interface but the company did eventually make it so anyone could sign up and use it. If you were a young adult in the '90s and early 2000s, it's highly likely that you used AIM and had an extensive "buddy list" of contacts that you conversed with. If you've ever seen the 1998 movie, "You've Got Mail", AIM even helped Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan communicate and find love.

AIM was more than a consumer thing, though. Before we had Jabber and Office Communications Server, people still had the need to message each other, and AIM was used by a number of businesses, particularly those on Wall Street. In fact, to this day I still interact with my Wall Street clients using AIM. The reason many businesses gravitated to it was that almost every firewall vendor made it easy to archive every conversation. Other messaging platforms, such as Yahoo or MSN Messenger, weren't supported as widely. I'm not sure if there was a technical reason, but somehow AIM became the preferred tool for businesses. In addition to investors, I had regular conversations with PR people, reporters, and vendors over AIM. One of the bigger moments for AIM was when Cisco enabled its Jabber users to communicate with AIM users.

As widespread as AIM was, it had one big flaw -- AOL never figured out how to make money off it. It was a free service and didn't create any draw to people using the main AOL service. Consider how Facebook Messenger users are also Facebook users. Many AIM users were not subscribers of anything else AOL-based.

While AIM was standing still -- which is akin to going backwards in technology -- other competitors emerged; and these weren't the jokes that Yahoo and MSN Messenger were. In the mid-2000s, Skype added messaging, file transfer, and screen sharing to its platform, and then Google released Talk, also with a rich set of UC-like services. Since then a number of other messaging apps have come to market, including WeChat, WhatsApp, and the previously mentioned Facebook Messenger. The popularity of these apps does show that there is a market for messaging apps but AOL never invested in the platform to keep it current. Had AOL kept the innovation engine going around AIM it may have been the market share leader in messaging.

But alas, the company did not, and instead it's just another reminder of how quickly the world has changed. Now, please excuse me, as I need to go update my signature line to remove AIM from it. While I'm at it, I might as well take Yahoo IM out, as its death can't be far behind.


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