Simplicity breeds success: the lasting impact of AOL Instant Messenger

eric bosco
Eric Bosco helped build AOL Instant Messenger as an engineer in the 1990s, then protect it from company politics as he rose through AOL’s ranks.
For many people over the age of 20, AOL Instant Messenger is a quietly iconic element of the early internet. Back when chatting online was still new and novel, AIM provided many users with their first opportunity to chat with friends via the net.

When AIM was in its earliest stages of development, Eric Bosco was working as an engineer for computer tech firm Oracle in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and his wife wanted to make the move to the East Coast, so he called in a favor from a friend working at AOL, who made sure that it fell into the right hands. By the end of 1996, he had relocated and started his tenure with the company.

“Talk about ending up in the right place at the right time,” said Bosco. That, perhaps, is an understatement. The work he and his team did at AOL formed the foundation for the billions of text messages that are now sent every day.

The Walled Garden

AIM buddy listHere’s a good example of just how different internet access was twenty years ago — when Bosco joined AOL, the company was still charging an hourly rate for customers to access its online services. “If you were an AOL subscriber in 1996, you had instant messaging, and you had the buddy list,” Bosco explained. These features were reserved for paying customers — they were kept within the “walled garden,” as he puts it.

A few months into Bosco’s tenure with AOL, it switched from its hourly rates to a flat monthly subscription of $19.95. A prudent business move, it drastically increased the user base, but also caused chaos as users made a mad dash to get online. The company struggled to handle the load.

“Any of the engineers who had been at AOL for a while where trying to fix this system that was completely broken,” said Bosco. “I asked my boss, ‘what do you want me to do?’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t know what you should be doing, because I’ve got to fix this thing that’s broken here’”. Bosco was given vague instructions to investigate how AOL’s internal messenger could be made to work with users across the internet.

A team was assembled, with the intention of breaking down the walls that separated AOL users from the other denizens of the internet. Even without an active subscription, other users would be able to sign into AOL Instant Messenger and chat with their friends.

AIM was almost three times the size of AOL in terms of users.

The team soon realized the idea was a double-edged sword. Removing the barrier made AIM better for its users, because they would now be able to communicate with a much wider range of people. But it also removed a major selling point of the paid AOL service.

“Those features were considered to be a real value proposition, of the reason that people paid AOL as much as they did per month,” explained Bosco. “And so the concern was very simple: if you’re giving away for free what our paying customers really like, then we’ll lose paying customers, or we won’t get new customers — we’re essentially cannibalizing ourselves.”

Skunkworks

Fortunately, these concerns wouldn’t threaten the development of AIM until later on its lifespan. As 1996 faded into 1997, the team kept working without raising the ire of upper management.

“It was total skunkworks,” Bosco remembered. “No one really paid attention to what we were doing.”

Barry Appelman — the man generally recognized as the father of AIM and its buddy list functionality — had been with AOL since 1993, and was well-liked and respected among his colleagues. This allowed him to provide “air cover” for the continued development of AIM.

“Since we were engineers working under him, he had complete control over telling us what code to write,” said Bosco. “But once we wrote the code, the biggest problem was that you had to run it in a data center environment. You had to bring the system live. Organizationally, that meant running it in AOL’s data centers.”

This would expose the work that the AIM team was carrying out to other sectors of the company. Given that the project didn’t directly relate to upping a AOL’s subscriber count, it would be better if their efforts could be kept under wraps.

Fortunately, Appelman was able to find a way around this obstacle. AOL sourced servers from Hewlett Packard, and was in the process of exchanging a large quantity for newer models. He managed to secure around a hundred of these end-of-life servers for the AIM team, and Bosco helped install them in a quiet corner of a data center. “We sort of bootstrapped the whole thing, without asking for any other resources from anybody,” he said.

Appelman had a vision from AIM, and it didn’t take long for it to come to fruition.

In 1998, 10 percent of the entire AOL user base was making use of the service, and that number was growing rapidly. “We realized, ‘this thing is taking off,’ and in a very short period of time,” said Bosco. “By 2000, if memory serves me correctly, AIM was almost three times the size of AOL in terms of users. It really skyrocketed early on.”

Internal Affairs

Thanks to the success of AIM, Bosco managed to rise up the ranks of the company — indeed, by the time he left in 2005, he was the vice president of community and communications engineering. His increased stature meant that he took on a role as protector of the project.

“We had normal larger company politics going on,” he said. “My personal mission in life was to play those politics to make sure that not only should AIM stay alive, but that we could continue to innovate and keep our user base engaged, and to grow, and so forth.”

“The biggest ‘pull’ or tension, was between AOL’s customer acquisition machine, and AIM,” explained Bosco. “AOL would bombard the whole country with AOL CDs and floppy disks — you couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy a box of cereal without finding an AOL CD-ROM inside of it.”

Subscriber acquisition was a primary focus, but not for the AIM team. There were millions of internet users signing up for AIM, and AOL came to view these individuals as potential subscribers. The end goal was to trap free users into becoming paid users.

You couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy a box of cereal without finding an AOL CD-ROM inside of it

The millions of people that downloaded AIM were seen as prime candidates for a recurring monthly subscription for AOL. The idea was that the IM client would be distributed for free, but it would come packaged with an installation of the AOL client. Bosco likens the strategy to a Trojan horse, with the money-making component hiding away under the surface of a free program that users would want to download and install. The AIM user base was set to become a captive audience for AOL’s marketing efforts and subscriber acquisition campaigns.

“We felt like that was a terrible user experience for the AIM user,” said Bosco. “Even though aspects of it might have made sense for AOL.”

Internal entities were threatening the future of AIM — not intentionally, but as a natural result of the heft of a company the size of AOL. The balancing act of preserving the existing experience and attempting to innovate new features would have been challenge enough, but there were other forces set to make Bosco’s job even more difficult.

“We were not alone in this messaging arms race.”

The Chat Wars

The success of AIM had not gone unnoticed by other tech companies. Just as the likes of Google and Apple are keen to tempt today’s users into their ecosystem with a slick messaging app, major players were eager to carve out their share of the IM space.

“Microsoft had released MSN Messenger, and they were trying to use their dominance of the desktop to get people to use their product,” Bosco remembered. “And there was an Israeli company — that we ended up acquiring — called ICQ. Before they became AOL’s property, ICQ was competing neck-and-neck with AIM.”

What killed AIM, in some sense, was text messaging.

For the AIM team, it was clear that further innovation was necessary if their service was going to thrive in this competitive atmosphere. The basics of messaging were in place – now the question was what else users might want to do in the same environment. “I think that so many things that are popular now, and that are used in messaging apps today, were prototyped in AIM in the late 90s-2000s timeframe,” argued Bosco. Intense completion led to rapid iteration as each team tried to acquire the most users.

The purchase of ICQ allowed AOL to eliminate one of its biggest rivals, but competition from MSN Messenger remained “fierce,” according to Bosco. The launch of Microsoft’s service in 1999 prompted a game of cat-and-mouse between the two development teams working behind the scenes.

“If you look at communication apps, there are really two things that are important as to whether a communication app is successful or not successful,” said Bosco. “One of them is ‘are the app’s features good?’ but the other thing that’s critically important is ‘are there any users to communicate with?’”

When Microsoft decided to move into messaging, there was little reason for AIM users to jump over to the new MSN Messenger service. As a result, there simply weren’t many other users to communicate with — but the Microsoft team had a cunning plan up its collective sleeves.

“Without asking AOL for permission, Microsoft reverse-engineered our communications protocol,” explained Bosco. “You could actually type in your AIM username and password into this Microsoft Messenger, and it would connect to AIM, pretending to be an authorized AIM client — they basically hacked into us.”

msn messenger

Microsoft had found a way to tap into an enormous existing user base, and AOL wasn’t happy about it.

“We ended up in a huge technical fight with them,” said Bosco. “We eventually won, where they eventually gave up on trying to do this, because everytime they tried to log in pretending they were AIM, we would find something that they would do that was not quite AIM-like, and we would block them. So they would have to force their users to upgrade their software again.”

“We went through this 21 times in a period of five or six weeks,” remembered Bosco. “Then Microsoft finally gave up.” In 2014, former Microsoft programmer David Auerbach wrote an account of being on the other side of this “chat war” for n+1 Magazine.

End of an Era

In time, this direct conflict died down. Microsoft and its MSN Messenger were still a threat, but once the attempts to sap AIM’s user base died off, feature sets and innovation were once again the key to competition.

The question of whether AIM should allow conversation with users utilizing other services came into play. However, the tension between the user experience and good business sense would inform AOL’s decision.

“The calculus was, if I have my software on a user’s computer, I get to show them my ad,” said Bosco. “If I simply let anybody talk to us, then they’re using my server infrastructure, which costs money to run — but I don’t have the end touch point with the consumer, and I lose out on all the revenue.”

However, it wasn’t a direct competitor that would knock AIM from its perch as the go-to method of digital communication.

AIM would start to see a decline as the 2000s came to a close, and by 2012 its development staff was reduced to zero.

“What killed AIM, was text messaging,” argued Bosco. “All of a sudden, mobile took off — and even though we were very aggressive on the mobile front, with the pricing of SMS going dirt cheap, people started texting.”

Features like the ability to see whether contacts were online, and expansive personalization options, meant that AIM was leagues ahead of text messaging in functionality. But SMS was, in other ways, the natural next step.

The appeal of AOL Instant Messenger was in the name – it was instant. But, because it was only for computers, a barrier remained between users. SMS text messages removed that, allowing users to communicate instantly, from anywhere a cell phone could connect.

AIM would start to see a decline as the 2000s came to a close, and by 2012 its development staff was reduced to zero. The service still exists in some form to this day — but its impact is best seen in other IM clients.

The Next Generation

Today, IM clients are often embedded in other services. Facebook has Messenger, Skype offers text chat alongside video calls. And services like WhatsApp, Google Allo, and iMessage offer instant communications over mobile data as an alternative to SMS messaging.

Whether it’s the presence of some form of “buddy list,” the ability to choose your own profile picture, or the ubiquity of the emoji — the successor to the emoticon of yore — it’s possible to see AIM’s innovations integrated into today’s most popular methods of communication.

“I can certainly tell you that the Google stuff is 100 percent influenced by AIM, because the lead architect on all the Google messaging apps is this guy called Justin Uberti,” said Bosco. “He was one of my chief architects on the AIM team.”

“You can definitely see the influence of the early work that Justin did,” continued Bosco. “He was brilliant, a brilliant engineer. We were fortunate to have him at AOL, and you can see a lot of that taking shape in some of the Google offerings.”

However, it’s not just the personal contributions of a standout engineer like Uberti. AIM was the canvas for early innovations in a field that has grown exponentially, and the fact that so many users became familiar with the concept of instant messaging as a result of the program means that its user interface and feature set have become touchstones for work in this space, even twenty years since its initial release.

“I think AIM was really the first commercially successful consumer messaging product out there,” mused Bosco. “There was a lot of experimentation that happened on AIM. and there were a lot of things that were discovered by the AIM team that were successful, or not successful. We would release features constantly and keep track of usage; you would see that some stuff is super popular, and other stuff people don’t really care about.”

“One of the things that I think was completely pioneered by AIM, and is central to so many successful messaging apps today, is the whole concept of vanity,” Bosco continued. “That people want to represent themselves, have their buddy icons, their smileys — now emojis. That core notion of ‘when I message, I want to portray my persona’ was pioneered by AIM, and is a central tenet for any successful messaging app.”

AIM had its roots in the expert-level chat functionality used in UNIX server systems. The team wanted to make this kind of utility approachable enough for the average user, and when it exploded in terms of popularity, there was a scramble to find the features that would preserve the program’s position as the go-to IM service.

AIM has long since been outpaced by other messaging options. However, its impact can still be felt — AIM is a foundational component of the IM experience, and many of the messaging services and apps that we use on a daily basis might be significantly different were it not for the program’s immense popularity back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

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