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December 18, 2014

The History of Messaging Platforms

Amit Shafrir Zula Summit

To hear about the history of messaging platforms is like a walk down memory lane for baby boomers and Gen X + Y’ers. That’s the exact experience that was delivered to attendees of the 2014 Zula Summit when Amit Shafrir former President of AOL, and GM of ICQ took the stage.

Early Beginnings

AOL Buddies was the first closed environment messaging system for consumers. AOL later went on to acquire ICQ, which became the first open Internet messaging system. The biggest mightiest instant messaging platform soon followed: AIM. AIM ruled the world of messaging in the 90s and early 2000s. There were also other services, such as MSN messenger and Yahoo Messenger, but they weren’t nearly as major as AIM was.

That was that point that everyone was expected to have email and messaging. People were excited over every new innovation. Knowing that the other side is online was a big deal. Knowing that they saw your message was also a big deal. Once invisible mode kicked in, it was like cheating. People acted like they weren’t online, when they actually were. Many other features slowly rolled out, such as being switched to idle mode because of lack of movement.

Growth, Longevity, and Virality

“Growth” is a main factor to consider when building a messaging platform. The platform has to grow and not die. To put this into context, MSN messenger and Yahoo Messenger both experienced tremendous growth in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The numbers quickly went down from there. It has now reached a point where people barely use MSN or Yahoo Messenger.

Generally speaking, messaging is one of the things that can be naturally viral. Because of the nature of communication, it only lasts if people are on it. In todays world, you have to figure how to get viral growth, and that can be more so achieved in one of two ways – either create a cool product or create a feature that hasn’t previously been invented. When ICQ invented desktop to mobile messaging, they did it by getting into the mobile messaging system in a way where people would get messages on their phone. ICQ quietly sent text messages, and people started responding. In turn, that generated money for mobile operators, all without mobile operators really knowing. Later on, that made it easier for ICQ to make deals, using the revenues as leverage. Figure out the business ability is very crucial for longevity.

Today, there are 200 messaging system that are alive. Most won’t stick around. They have to continue to innovate, and see opportunities in the marketplace and grab them by the horns.

Skype has been stagnant for a while. At one point, it was one of the hottest messaging platforms. The lack of activity may have to do with the Microsoft acquisition, but it was mainly because of the lack of innovation. However, there are now talks of Skype introducing translation. Innovation like that would take it out of the graveyard. You have got to constantly be vigilant about innovating, identifying and executing.

More is Less

Also, remember that more usually means less. When you build a messaging platform and constantly add functionalities, it doesn’t necessarily mean more people will use it. For example, ICQ had lots of functionalities, but people only used it for messaging. Instagram tries to offer many functionalities, but people mostly use it for photo sharing. Platforms should focus on what works best for them.

Check out the video below to learn more about the history of messaging platforms.