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What Ever Happened to ICQ?

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ICQ, short for the phrase “I Seek You,” laid the groundwork for standalone instant messaging clients when it arrived in November 1996. Think about how long ago that was…

Microsoft’s trailblazing Windows 95 was barely a year old, Nintendo had just introduced the N64, and those with a reason to have a cell phone actually used it to talk on.

Launched after less than two months of development from Israeli company Mirabilis, it predated and influenced many of the popular chat programs of the era including AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger.

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Incredibly enough, ICQ has also outlasted its chief competitors: AIM shut down at the end of 2017, Yahoo’s communications program bit the bullet in mid-2018 and Microsoft laid its Messenger client to rest in 2014.

ICQ offered a number of innovative features including multi-user chat, async offline messaging, resumable file transfers and a searchable directory. Users were issued a unique User Identification Number, or UIN, upon registration. This number (I somehow still remember mine by heart some 20 years later), along with custom handles and an attached email address, were used to search for other users on the platform.

Mirabilis enjoyed first-mover advantage, attracting millions of early Internet users enticed by the proposition of chatting with friends and family in real-time. ICQ’s success also captivated potential suitors, prompting AOL to ink a check to the tune of $287 million for the entirety of Mirabilis’ assets in 1998. Contingency payments that started in fiscal 2001 reportedly totaled an additional $120 million, pushing the total value of the deal over $400 million.

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America Online would manage to grow ICQ’s user base tenfold over the next three years, surpassing more than 100 million registered users by the spring of 2001.

The coming decade would again reinvent personal communication, driving conversations from mouse and keyboard to mobile devices. AOL must have saw the writing on the wall as it offloaded ICQ to Russian investment firm Digital Sky Technologies (later known as Mail.ru Group, now VK) in 2010 for $187.5 million.

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Some may be surprised to learn that ICQ is still around and is being actively developed. The latest stable release in desktop was this month (as of February 2022), version 10.0.46581, while Android and iOS apps have also been recently updated. Today’s ICQ is a far cry from the basic UI of yesteryear, with a modern design and familiar features like secure video calls and stickers. The core functionality – the ability to chat with friends and family – remains.

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According to Mail.ru, the instant messaging platform is used by 11 million people worldwide each month. Sure, it’s not nearly as popular as it once was but it’s still around and that’s more than most of its early competitors can say. If you’re interested in reconnecting with old contacts or want to discover it for the first time, ICQ is available to download for Windows and Mac as well as Android and iOS mobile devices.

In early 2021 when WhatsApp updated its privacy policy, several users in Hong Kong ditched the Facebook-owned app in favor of a trip down memory lane. Downloads of ICQ jumped 35-fold in that week of 2021, surpassing the total number of downloads during the entire fourth quarter of 2020.

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Image: Joyu Wang, WSJ

Most probably wouldn’t mistake ICQ as a pillar of privacy considering it is owned and operated by VK, the Russian Internet services group formerly known as Mail.ru Group. But for the curious among us, the app is still being actively developed and it’s cross-platform and available for most major operating systems.

Those expecting an experience similar to what the original desktop app delivered will likely be disappointed as the current version has much more in common with modern chat apps than vintage instant messaging clients.

TechSpot’s “What Ever Happened to…” Series

The story of software apps and companies that at one point hit mainstream and were widely used, but are now gone. We cover the most prominent areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.

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