AOL Instant Messenger: What Does Its Death Mean for the Future of Digital Messaging?

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), the granddaddy of texts, tweets, and animated social messaging like Snapchat, recently announced that it will be shutting down as of December 15, 2017.

The Pioneer

AIM existed for two decades. It was a pioneering off-shoot of e-mail, allowing people to privately message back and forth on desktop computers before smartphones were in wide use, and before both smartphones and texts took over as the short message of choice.

As genuinely affectionate reminiscences from media outlets as diverse as TechCrunch and The Atlantic make clear, AIM was many a Millennial then a teenager’s introduction to the pleasures of messaging. As The Atlantic astutely notes, in the relatively early days of e-mail and messaging, e-mail slowly became the official mode of communication of offices and schools, while messaging became the unofficial, social connection between friends and social groups.

In the early days, AOL and AIM did battle with companies like Yahoo and Microsoft for messaging supremacy. Ultimately, parent AOL was sold to telecom company Verizon, where it remains today.

Facebook’s What’s App is likely the biggest beneficiary of AIM’s demise.

Market Capture by Newer Companies

In many ways, however, the fate of AIM is not so much a nostalgic trip through messaging capabilities of the past as it is simply a story of a great idea being scooped by multiple competitors. Maybe great idea(s), when one considers the number of elements AIM offered that had new lives in different forms in its competitors.

AIM had the ability to tell connections a user’s status, which was likely among the reasons Facebook went heavily into status updates – so much so that a contemporary observer, asked to free associate the term “status update” with another term, would likely choose “Facebook.” AIM had brevity. Hello, Twitter. AIM had cute graphics – most notably, a clown-like figure. The concept is certainly familiar to users of Snapchat, whose messages are designed to carry clever animation.

So AIM was the progenitor of many social media channels currently in wide use. More people today by far use Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter than use AOL or AIM.

Facebook’s What’s App Is a Clear Winner

More importantly for AIM’s long-term survival, perhaps, those channels ultimately outperformed AIM financially. AOL was once valued at $224 billion in today’s dollars. However, when it was sold to Verizon two years ago, the value was just $4.4 billion.

The future of messaging isn’t vanishing with AIM. Messaging is stronger than ever.

The clear winner is Facebook, which acquired messaging company What’s App several years ago. The purchase price of What’s App was $19 billion, which gives some idea of how valuable Facebook considers the instant messaging market to be.

Some analysts disagree, thinking the price was too high. But the fact remains, What’s App has grown significantly since being acquired by Facebook, more an estimated 450 million monthly active users (MAU) in 2014, the year of its acquisition, to 1.2 billion earlier this year. While Facebook doesn’t break out how much What’s App contributes to its corporate coffers, growth like this certainly has potential, even if the initial price was steep.

Digital messaging is stronger than ever, despite the demise of the first messaging service. In fact, the death of AOL’s AIM illustrates how much good ideas simply take on new forms in the digital world, and keep on ticking.