While developing EasyLy we discovered a lot of new interesting things about messengers, their development and their functionality. We decided to write a series of articles dedicated to the history of messengers from their roots to the present day.
In addition to emails, instant messages have a huge impact on connecting people; nowadays you can easily contact a person on the other side of the world. How did it all begin?
Instant messaging has been a growing field for many years so it is quite difficult to pinpoint the exact time when the first messengers emerged. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to track down when instant messaging services have made a quantum leap and become popular.
In the 90s, at the dawn of the instant messaging era, most of the people who had access to the Internet used a Dial-Up telephone modem. It was a slow (only 56 kb/sec compared to the current 100 kb/sec), expensive and unstable mean of connection. Can you still recall those stunning sounds the modem would make while connecting? J No one would go online for more than one or two hours per day as it tied up your telephone, plus you had to pay for every minute. No one would dream about accessing the Internet from a mobile phone either. The idea of a smartphone seemed like complete fiction back then. Mobile phone screens were black and white and could display no more than two lines of text. However, very few people could really afford mobile phones. Therefore, the first generation of messengers was created exclusively for personal computers.
The first messenger known today is ICQ (sounds similar to ‘I SEEK YOU’ in English), which appeared in 1996. It all began with four schoolmates from Israel who created the Mirabilis company and started developing a program for communicating on the Internet and local networks. Upon completion, they sent the program to their friends and family, who would then bring their friends and acquaintances to ICQ. The number of users grew exponentially. After a while, the talented foursome released a corporate version of ICQ. ICQ pioneered the instant messenger market. Following ICQ, there were AIM and MSN/WLM, then Gadu-Gadu, QQ, NateOn, Google Talk, Miranda, QIP, Skype and many others including the only open standard – XMPP or Jabber.
With all the variety of messengers, they all had one thing in common was the status. When you opened an application, the first thing you’d see was a list of contacts and those who were currently online. Big flashing icons indicated whether a contact was available, busy or away. Sound notifications would let you know about your friends’ status. By default, when you logged in, you also broadcasted to the world that you were online. In order to chat with someone, both of you had to be online. There were also group chats, but they came with a bunch of issues and limitations. You could join a group chat after logging in, however, the participants were not necessarily online at the same time as you. Any person could be disconnected for whatever reason (connection instability or a phone call). You would miss the conversation if were you offline. Besides, group chats were filled with status change notifications, e.g., Ivan joined or Anton disconnected.
Some of the messaging services offered both voice and video. At that time, computers were not equipped with built-in cameras. The cameras themselves cost a fortune and the picture quality was just horrendous. Most of the functions of voice and video were only available in one-on-one conversations, and almost none of the applications was compatible with landline or mobile phones.
Many people used those first messengers to share files because at that time you couldn’t send some ‘heavy’ (2MB) files via email. Either waiting for the file to transfer and the mail window to close took too much time, or servers restricted file size. You also had the ability to do this in messengers, though there were some difficulties. You would send a file, wait until the receiver accepted it and then wait until the download was complete. Sometimes file transfer request would stay there for a long time or even fail to deliver. Most of the messengers had limited capacity and some had censorship (some of the formats could not be delivered for security reasons). Moreover, sending files was taken into account outside the context of a chat. Nothing in a conversation showed which files you sent and which you accepted.
Little by little, the majority of first messenger issues was fixed. The introduction of DSL modems provided high-speed, much more stable connections, and offline messages and conversation logs which could store chat histories appeared. The smartphone era began and brought us to the second wave of messengers.
Read about the second wave in our next article in our blog.