America Online had the whole digital world in its hands by the mid-1990s, but nothing can last forever. AOL was founded in the early 80s as Control Video Corporation, focusing exclusively on an online service for the Atari 2600. By the middle of the decade, however, management restructured the company as an online service provider for those new to the Internet.
This early Internet venture was wildly successful, largely in part due to AOL's web portal for beginners which featured casual and classic games, news and sports sections, chat rooms, tips on finance, and more.
At a time when it wasn’t readily apparent just what to do once you’d gotten online, AOL’s web portal served as a good starting place for many.
One of my earliest computer memories involves AIM.
Arguably one of the greatest tools to be spun out of the core AOL experience was its standalone instant messaging client, affectionately known as AIM. The program was quietly released in the spring of 1997 for Microsoft Windows, allowing users to register an online handle, create buddy lists, and chat with friends in near real-time.
One of my earliest computer memories involves AIM. It was 1998 and I’d just received my first computer for Christmas. After the local ISP got me set up with a Road Runner cable modem, I was off to the races. Of course, the first thing I did was download AIM and connect with my best friend who lived a few minutes away. “Look mom, I’m chatting with Keith on the computer, and it’s live!” “Oh, that’s neat…” she said before going back into the living room, clearly not amused.
As for me, I was spellbound. Sure, I’d tinkered around in chat rooms before but it was always with random people. Being able to see when people you know in real life signed on was next level cool.
Truth be told, it wasn’t all that different from other chat apps like ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger of the era. They all basically accomplished the same thing, letting you create buddy lists and chat with pals.
AIM's Dirty Little Secret
The biggest difference, and perhaps the dirty little secret about AIM that you may not know, is that AOL never commissioned its creation.
AIM was the brainchild of Barry Appelman, a Unix programmer that had been hired by AOL in 1993. Unlike other companies of the era, AOL was unique in that it knew a lot about its account holders, including when they logged on and which users they were. Appelman used this knowledge base to create the buddy list, a tool that would show when users were online.
Later, he and two other co-workers used the buddy list as the foundation for an instant messaging tool that would become AIM, all without the approval of AOL executives.
Needless to say, they weren't happy about the unsanctioned project. Specifically, executives didn't like that AIM went against its subscription-based model they had spent years developing. Eventually, however, the product team was able to convince executives to move forward and AIM was released in 1997 and caught on like wildfire.
By 2001, AIM had reached 36 million active users and by 2007 when the iPhone arrived, the service had 63 million users. Those were impressive numbers, but certainly not dominant. Microsoft, for example, had managed to attract 294 million users to its MSN Messenger service although that was more of a global audience, while AIM was a more US-centric affair in comparison.
Having triumphed Y2K, AOL and the Internet felt unstoppable. But as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And fall, AOL did. One of its biggest shortcomings was handling the success of AIM and failing to realize the value of a free product.
The Mobile Revolution
The early part of the 2000s saw the proliferation of mobile devices. Nokia was an early leader in the cell phone movement with early adopters gobbling up the Nokia 5110 around the turn of the century. Motorola also had a hit with the original V3 Razr, all of which facilitated the growth of SMS. It didn't take long for text messaging on cell phones to skyrocket.
Later on, BlackBerry started trending among business professionals that needed access to email on the go. Then in 2007, the arrival of the iPhone made it clear that the next generation of users were going to be communicating online primarily with their phones.
PC users had not gone anywhere, and they were still around and busy communicating with each other, but even they were being targeted by social media companies like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and even Google, inviting people to chat with Google Chat via Gmail.
Courtesy old-school AIM chat app project
AOL's top brass never threw their weight behind AIM. The program's design team reportedly came up with multiple innovative features behind closed doors, but most of them never made it into public versions of the software.
To its credit, AOL did release a version of AIM for Palm devices, the iPhone and iPad Touch, but it was too little, too late. While it technically worked, the magic of AIM didn’t carry over. Unsurprisingly, it never caught on.
In early 2014, AOL said it had wiped out its AIM staff as part of company-wide layoffs and by 2017, AOL said it would be finally closing the doors on its long-running chat program. The plug was officially pulled on December 15, 2017.
But, that’s not quite the end of the AIM story. After the main AIM was shut down, Wildman Productions, a non-profit gaming development team, resurrected the app as AIM Phoenix. Since it is no longer affiliated with AOL, you won’t have access to your old buddy lists.
But, that gives you the opportunity to start anew and perhaps nab a name you couldn’t get before. Or, you could just register the name you used to use.
It would be beyond naive to preach of a second coming of AIM or ICQ. Those programs had their time in the limelight, but their better years are far in the rearview at this point. Instead, it's most constructive to remember these sorts of apps for what they did and what they taught us.
AIM and similar chat programs of the late 90s and early 2000s were instrumental in facilitating digital socializing for millions of early Internet users.
We were pioneering the way forward with cutting-edge tech and that felt powerful at the time, especially for those that lacked traditional social skills.
Chat apps taught us how to socialize with our peers while simultaneously building our keyboarding skills. I personally fostered several relationships online that I still maintain today, well over 20 years later, some with people I've never met in person. Had it not been for programs like AIM, those people likely wouldn't be a part of my life today.
In a parallel reality, AOL execs could have put its full weight behind AIM and found a way to dominate messaging and become what WhatsApp is today. Had that happened, maybe just maybe AOL would still be relevant today.