RIP AIM: Famed AOL Instant Messenger shutting down after 20 years

Once an iconic internet brand, AIM has faded into irrelevance after two decades

Published October 6, 2017 3:23PM (EDT)

 (AP/Axel Heimken)
(AP/Axel Heimken)

AOL Instant Messenger, better known as AIM, will be signing off for the last time on December 15.

"AIM tapped into new digital technologies and ignited a cultural shift, but the way in which we communicate with each other has profoundly changed," wrote Michael Albers, vice president of Oath, the Verizon-owned company that purchased AOL in 2015.

The website posted a notice on Friday as well, confirming the news.

Launched in 1997 with little fanfare by the former internet giant, AIM was a fixture of the early internet and was many people's first real taste of instantaneous communication. Instant messaging existed before AIM's release but the only people who really did it were advanced computer users with access to government- or college-owned mainframe computers. AIM changed all of that forever.

Despite the historical achievement that AIM represented, however, the writing had been on the wall for some time.

The rise of Facebook and chat apps like Skype and WhatsApp almost totally eroded its market share. A study of the popularity of various messaging apps released in May of 2016 by the web statistics company SimilarWeb did not report any measured share for AIM. In 2012, AOL laid off most of its employees who were working on AIM, including all of its developers. In February, AOL announced that it would end the ability of third-party messaging apps to connect to the AIM service.

Although it eventually became profitable within the company, AIM was never a great fit. Interviewed by Mashable writer Jason Abbruzzese in 2014, three of the service's creators said that AOL executives continually sought to kill AIM because they saw the free messaging service as undermining the company's paid subscription model.

Barry Appelman, one of AIM's early developers, said he was nearly fired for using company time and resources to produce a messaging program that allowed non-AOL users to chat with AOL subscribers. According to Appelman, the AIM team had to work on their software on computers that AOL's accounting department had thought were lost.

"They wanted to kill it and at some point they wanted to fire me for doing this stunt," Appelman told Mashable.

Nonetheless, the team was able to get AIM to the market. It wasn't able to persuade executives to do any sort of announcement for AIM but it soon proved unnecessary. On the night that AIM was first uploaded to a lowly FTP server, 900 people had already started using it, according to Appelman's former colleague Jerry Harris.

AIM caught on like wildfire soon thereafter, reaching a peak of 18 million users and becoming integral to the plots of several movies, including the 1998 hit movie "You've Got Mail."

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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Aim Aol Aol Instant Messenger Computing History Instant Messaging Internet History