RIP ICQ: Remembering a classic messaging application that was ahead of its time

Enlarge / ICQ in Windows 98.

Samuel Axon

After almost 28 years in operation, the ICQ messaging service will stop operating on June 26, according to its current owners.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing it still exists; The proto-IM service hasn’t been in the mainstream since the 2000s. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it simultaneously laid the foundation for direct messaging and social networking as we knew it in the era. post-Facebook.

28 years of history

ICQ was something of an accident, however popular it became. Created by four Israeli computer experts, it wasn’t even intended to be the original idea.

In the wake of Netscape’s IPO, which heralded a new era of money-making tech companies, the four were looking for an idea to run with. Their initial plan was to launch a service that would make it easier to check pager messages. They invented ICQ as a tool for themselves while working on that project.

In the days of dial-up, staying online all the time to receive messages or chat on platforms like IRC was not for everyone. Most people had to keep those lines open for phone calls.

As a result, ICQ creators were frustrated because they did not see others’ online messages. They developed ICQ as a better way to communicate from their homes while collaborating on the (now useless) pager project.

The app didn’t have much marketing behind it, but it spread quickly by word of mouth, particularly in the nascent online gaming communities around multi-user dungeons (MUDs), early deathmatches, etc. More than anything else, the bearer of ICQ’s legacy today is Discord.

ICQ was eventually purchased by AOL and lost ground to more financially backed services like AIM and MSN. Then came MySpace, Facebook, social networks, iMessage, etc., leaving no more room for the old ICQ.

In 2010, ICQ was acquired by a company then called Mail.ru, a major Russian Internet application provider. That company eventually morphed and changed its name to VK, and has since kept ICQ on life support as a sort of Russian alternative to Skype.

message memories

In light of the news, some Ars staff members have shared some of their memories about ICQ.

Samuel Axon – Senior Editor

ICQ had several unique features for the time. Those of us who use it can still remember our ICQ numbers; There were no usernames, but something more like a phone number. The sooner someone joined, the smaller their number could be, so there was prestige in a smaller number. (Mine was 6377119; seven digits were respectable, but not the vertex.)

I signed up because I was playing the game online. 59th Meridianand its community heavily used ICQ for out-of-game communication.

ICQ offered online profiles and it was through those profiles that I met my first girlfriend in high school. I lived in Springfield, Missouri, and she lived in Joplin, which is kind of close. She was looking for people with similar interests to meet, she somehow stumbled upon my profile and saw that she was interested in writing and journalism. A classic ’90s summer teen romance followed.

It was the first thing I could think of in my life that looked like a Facebook-style social network, and it was also my first experience with anything like online dating. He found my profile, I sounded great and he sent me a message.

I continued using ICQ for years to communicate with my friends in the MUD and game development communities before other services took over in the 2000s. I probably stuck it out longer than most. Frankly, I miss that “uh oh!” message sound. It was a strange choice, but to me it’s iconic.

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