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

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Enlarge / ICQ in Windows 98.

Samuel Axon

After nearly 28 years in operation, messaging service ICQ will cease operations on June 26, according to its current owners.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing it still existed; 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 groundwork for direct messaging and social networking as we came to know it in the post-Facebook era.

28 years of history

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

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

In the time of dial-up, staying online all the time to receive messages or chat on platforms like IRC wasn’t a thing for everybody. Most folks had to keep those lines open for phone calls.

As a result, the creators of ICQ were getting frustrated that they weren’t seeing each other’s online messages. They developed ICQ as a better way to communicate from their homes while collaborating on the (now pointless) beeper project.

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

ICQ was eventually purchased by AOL, and it lost ground to more heavily financially backed services like AIM and MSN. Then came MySpace, Facebook, social media, iMessage, and so on, leaving no more room for old ICQ.

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

Messaging memories

In light of the news, a few Ars staffers have shared some of their memories about ICQ.

Samuel Axon – Senior Editor

ICQ had several unique features for the time. Those of us who used it might still remember our ICQ numbers; there weren’t user names, but instead something more akin to a phone number. The earlier someone joined, the shorter their number could be, so there was prestige in a shorter number. (Mine was 6377119—seven digits was respectable, but not the apex.)

I signed up because I was playing the online game Meridian 59, and its community largely 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 somewhat nearby. She was looking for folks to meet with similar interests, somehow stumbled on my profile, and saw that I was interested in writing and journalism. A classic 1990s summer teen romance followed.

It was the first thing I could think of in my life that resembled Facebook-style social networking, and it was also my first experience with anything resembling online dating. She found my profile, I sounded cool to her, and she messaged me.

I kept 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 held on longer than most. Frankly, I miss that “uh oh!” messaging sound. It was an odd choice, but for me, it’s iconic.

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