AOL announced today that AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) will shut down as of December 15. AIM has been pretty dead for years, largely supplanted by services like Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Google Hangouts, text messaging, and WhatsApp. But I’m still a little sorry to see it go. AIM was the first instant messenger service that I ever used, and for years, it was one of the dominant ways I communicated online. While the service was in testing by May, it didn’t go public until the fall of 1997, which dovetailed neatly with major changes in my own life.
I started college in August 1997. I wasn’t really homesick, but I was a bit bummed. Back at home, my parents had paid for AOL’s online service for roughly two years and I’d built up a small cadre of friends and acquaintances on the company’s forums and chat services. Once I headed off to college I figured these friendships were behind me. There were no third-party clients to connect to multiple chat services; aggregators like Trillian and Pidgin didn’t even exist yet. Then I discovered AIM.
The first real user name I ever used online was an abbreviation for my college’s name and our mascot. For years, I was absurdly proud of the fact that my AIM user name had no numbers after it. I would occasionally see fellow students with the same name as myself, but always with a 01, 15, etc after it. Not me. It’s probably one of the few things I ever thought of first. I still connect to AIM with a third-party client, though looking at my old friends list drives home how little people use the service now. After I met my fiancée, AIM was how we initially kept in touch. While my use faded as I moved to other chat clients, AIM was a link to my past, like a great restaurant you don’t eat at very often, but remember fondly when you think of it.
AIM’s larger problem was that AOL never really found a way to monetize or boost the feature. Other, more successful IM clients, like Google and now Facebook, added multimedia capabilities that AIM toyed with in some cases, but ultimately never attempted to drive as a core feature of the client. The UI, originally clean and simple, also became more cluttered as AOL shoved features and advertising into the client without much consideration for how it impacted the overall experience. As AOL got more annoying, more people either shifted to connecting to the service with a third-party client (Trillian, Pidgin, etc), or simply stopped using the service and migrated to a different one.
AOL also never really liked AIM. The problem is a classic case of the Innovator’s Dilemma. AOL had spent a great deal of time and effort into building AOL as a dominant web portal. Once upon a time, there was a genuine use-case for the client. AOL still offered access to the full internet through its own online browser, but it also offered an array of sports scores, news, stock tickers, personal ads (I think, but I’m not 100% on this one), topic-specific chat rooms, and the ability to chat with other AOL users who were also online. This walled garden created ample opportunities for AOL to either gather search and profile data on users. The gild was fading off that particular lily by the mid-2000s, but AOL remained a useful way for people who weren’t comfortable using the ‘full internet’ to keep in touch with one another. You could even make a case that companies like Facebook succeeded by improving on and streamlining some of the concepts that AOL offered 20 years ago. The largest difference, of course, is that Facebook is more directly focused on social engagement. It also never charged a monthly fee or attempted to moonlight as an ISP.
AIM, however, never really fit into AOL’s plans, and the company never invested in the project the way it could’ve. Mashable has a discussion of the rise and fall of AOL Instant Messenger, and it’s worth a read if you’re curious about the company. As for me, I admit, I’ll miss AIM just a little bit. I may not have used it in years, but it was the way I kept in touch with friends, family, and loved ones for over a decade. It wasn’t the first IM client — that honor goes to ICQ, which I also used — but its clean, relatively simple interface had more of an impact on IM client design long term. Today, every IM client I can think of uses a format more akin to AIM’s than ICQ.
This is Dputiger, signing off.