AOL Kills Off AIM, In Many Ways a Perfect Product

October 6, 2017, 5:32 PM UTC

Even people who haven’t used AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, for years, were distressed to hear that it would be killed on Dec. 15.

I never wanted to leave AIM in the first place, but since Apple stopped supporting it three years ago, it was just too difficult to maintain on a Mac or other Apple device. Yes, there was a complicated workaround, but who had the energy?

AIM was a key go-to communications channel for me for more than five years. That AIM “buddy list” included hundreds of people—friends, colleagues, PR people, and less official sources at various companies. It was the perfect channel for getting a quick quote or confirmation, and then move on. No muss, no fuss, and no voice mail tag.

Why AIM Was Beloved

One AIM buddy was Barry Appelman, one of the AIM developers who launched the service in 1997. Four years later, AIM claimed 36 million active users. Appelman explained at the time that AOL had debuted AIM around the same time Microsoft started pushing its rival MSN Internet portal and network. AOL’s original goal with AIM was to make its network more interesting to users and not, as some contended, to get existing members to use up more paid online minutes. In its early days, users did pay AOL by the minute, but by the time AIM came around it had gone to a flat monthly fee, Appelman said.

Joe Raedle—Getty Images

But millions of those AIM users never paid AOL a dime, which probably did not endear AIM to its corporate overlords. AIM was a quick-and-easy (and free) download.

Many of those millions probably got siphoned off to rival chat apps, and many Apple users let AIM go when Apple dropped support.

Related: AOL Instant Messenger is Going Away. Here are Your Options

And Why it Failed

AIM’s prospects weren’t helped by the arrival of me-too chat apps like Yahoo Messenger and Microsoft (MSFT) MSN Messenger either. Then there were a number of business-focused versions of chat, like Lotus Sametime (now IBM (IBM) Sametime.)

The ironic thing there is that many AIM devotees saw its existence outside of corporate IT as a huge benefit, not a flaw. “The day corporate can track my messages, is the day I stop sending them,” one colleague said years ago.

At the same time, Facebook adopted instant messaging by adding Facebook Messenger, another AIM wannabe, to its social network.

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The great thing about AIM, which tech news site TechCrunch referred to as the “pioneering chat app that taught us to text,” was its seeming simplicity and lack of bloat. If you had an Internet connection, it worked.

AIM showed you your Buddy List in a box, and who was available to chat. You could set a “Do Not Disturb” sign or even will yourself invisible by clicking on the little on-screen eyeball. It was a great tool for stalking a buddy.

Compare that to most of today’s desktop apps that seem to do everything except the one thing we want to them to do. Feature bloat makes many modern software products too complicated for mere mortals to use. AIM was the antithesis of that and that’s why it’s sad to hear of its passing at the ripe old age of 20.

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