What were your pre-teen years like? Mine were frequently punctuated by the suddenly exploding internet. We’d never seen such a tool before. Instant Messengers installed themselves in the fabric of the internet and our lives. The rest, as we say, is history.

Or rather, it isn’t.

What is your primary messaging service? How many instant messaging services will we find on your phone? Friends and family are always within reach via Facebook Messenger, Twitter, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Kik, Viber, Telegram, or any of the myriad communication apps we now keep in our pockets. How about your colleagues? The TheGN team uses Slack. Others will use Google Hangouts, or ClearChat if you’re concerned about security.

Ready for a surprise? People still use Yahoo Messenger. Some people still use MSN Live Messenger. I know, right? We’ve more to share, too: all equally shocking. Let’s take a look at why some people hold onto these antiquated services, and why some remain useful.

1. Yahoo Messenger

Yahoo Messenger still commands a reasonable user base. In July 2016, Yahoo was finally sold for $5 billion to U.S. communication giant Verizon. It arrives in its new home with a modern instant messaging platform. While an accurate number of users is hard to come by, Yahoo believe they “have millions of users on Messenger.”

Yahoo Messenger recently received a drastic overhaul, aimed at modernizing their messaging service. The latest version integrates Flickr, Tumblr, and Xobni, and is available across iOS, Android, and on the web. The revamped Yahoo Messenger “was created with group messaging in mind,” allowing you to share, follow, like, and “unsend” messages. I think the modernization has paid off, and it appears to be a competent instant messaging platform.

2. Trillian

I used Trillian in the “instant messenger heyday.” Trillian started life as an ICQ (more on ICQ later!) client with integrated chat functionality for other popular platforms. It is now an ad-supported messaging client with support for Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, Aim, ICQ, Yahoo, and several other platforms.

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In a nod to its commercial status, the Trillian installer is bundled with the highly undesirable OpenCandy. OpenCandy is a notorious adware platform, rightly categorized as malware by many anti-virus developers.

The Trillian 5 interface is a step back in time to those instant messenger days. However, when you consider Trillian 5 was actually released in 2010, that we’re not too far in the future, along with modern app designs, Trillian will feel extremely dated for some.

3. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)

AIM is the de facto instant messaging service provided by one of the internet’s perennial punching-bags, AOL. The internet is filled with poignant tales of elderly internet users refusing to cancel their America Online accounts “in case the cable goes out.” While the internet has undoubtedly evolved, some of its users hold their old accounts dear. While the popularly of AIM sharply decreased at the start of the decade, it is still regularly updated for its current userbase.

Between January 2011 and January 2012, AOL Instant Messenger usage — on AIM.com and in the AIM app — declined 64 percent, from 12 million users to just 4 million.

AIM could have been WhatsApp. With the right development, it would have been one of the first IMs to make that leap. Instead, AOL made several ill-advised, high-profile acquisitions and in the end, simply failed to pivot with the times.

4. Pidgin

Pidgin is another chat client with support for numerous other instant messengers. Pidgin was initially released in 1998, meaning some users in the UK will now be able to legally drink while sending IMs to their friends.

Pidgin is compatible with the following chat networks out of the box: AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, Jabber/XMPP, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, Bonjour, Gadu-Gadu, IRC, Novell GroupWise Messenger, Lotus Sametime, SILC, SIMPLE, MXit, and Zephyr. It can support many more with plugins.

Third-party plugins add support for Facebook Messenger, Steam, Hangouts, Telegram, TorChat, and WhatsApp, making Pidgin an extremely well connected chat program. Pidgin may not be as popular as other major instant messengers, but it remains a favorite among privacy advocates. The Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR) plugin enables end-to-end encryption, granting users additional privacy.

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5. ICQ

ICQ is another stalwart of the instant messaging network. ICQ (I Seek You) first arrived on our systems in 1996. It laid the groundwork for other popular instant messaging services that would follow: a centralized service, individual user accounts, personal handles, file transfers, and a searchable user directory. Things we take for granted now were, at the time, truly exciting.

Roll forwards some 20 years, and the ICQ source code has been released on Github, under the Apache License. The messaging service is now freely available for download, modification, and redistribution. This might go some way to alleviating the concerns of those who consider ICQ a significant security risk, not least because of its 2010 purchase by Digital Sky Technologies, headed by Alisher Usmanov.

In 2010, security analyst Jeffery Carr noted that as ICQ would be owned by a Russian company, it would be required to comply with Russian law. This means the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) would have access to any logs and current activity taking place on the ICQ network, so “if you’re on ICQ, and you work for an employer who may be of interest to the FSB, now would be a really good time to close your account”.

However, the only difference I see here is who is looking at your logs, given what we know of surveillance schemes orchestrated by the U.S. and U.K. governments.

6. IRC

Internet Relay Chat is another oldie-but-goldie many of our readers will have interacted with over the years. IRC is an application layer protocol that enables chat messages to be sent through the internet. To use IRC, you’ll need an IRC client. IRC clients are available for every major operating system and plenty of smaller ones too. As with most of the instant messaging services born on the early internet, times are looking hard — but not terminal:

It’s clear that overall IRC usage, both in terms of users as well as channels, has been in steady decline for many years. In fact, IRC has lost 60% of its users since 2003, a dramatic fall in numbers for any service.

Jarkko Oikarinen, the creator of IRC (he now works for Google on the Hangouts project), believes the decline of IRC is due to the increase of commercialization of services across the internet:

Companies want to bring users to their walled gardens, [and] keep the user’s profiles locked there and not make it easy for users to leave the garden and take their data with them.

Nonetheless, some IRC networks, such as Freenode, are gaining members. Other services still rely on the IRC network to provide support. Due to the easy nature of starting a private IRC server, the service is still widely used across the Tor network to provide encrypted communication channels.

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Total number of IRC channels and users graph
Image Credit: Pingdom.com

Six of the Best

You’ve seen six instant messenger services still in use and understand a little about their history. In some cases, we’ve looked at the role they played in developing the messaging services we know and love today. In others, we’ve seen why they’re still important to their users.

We’re now almost overwhelmed with variety when it comes to messenger services. The advent of powerful smartphones, ubiquitous networking, and unrivalled bandwidth mean global communications are easier and more personal than ever.

That said, there was something magical about old instant messaging services, clunky as they were.

What was your favorite messaging service? Do you love the modern apps we use, or yearn for the oldies we’ve lost? Let us know your thoughts below!

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