Communication platforms have come a long way turning into the apps we can’t do without any longer, such as WhatsApp or Skype. Now, it's hard to imagine chatting without an opportunity to send a GIF or a voice message. However, these features were not even conceived at the dawn of first text terminals’ development.
Originally, the Internet was designed to exchange information. Communication platforms' features included sharing text messages and files, and special protocols and programs were developed to provide users with both of these functions. Thus, one of the earliest real-time messaging protocols and a corresponding program were called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC existed far back in 1988 and ran on a text terminal.
The ICQ era
After the Graphical User Interface (GUI) took over the world in 1996, four high school students from Tel Aviv created the “first edition” of a messenger, known today as the ICQ program (in consonance with “I seek you” catchword).
The ICQ client had a graphical interface and could send files, besides the text messages, and display graphical content in a scalable configuration in the program window.
ICQ was followed by plenty of replicas (inspired by its success), many of them attempted to register their client in the system. Since the ICQ protocol was never published, other companies simply tried to “hack” it. Therefore, the ICQ developers in order to protect their messenger, frequently changed the protocol for interacting with the server, temporarily setting all the third-party clients out of service.
At its peak, ICQ accounted for about 20 million users worldwide - an insane amount for that time! Such success motivated market leaders like Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo to develop similar programs. And this whole software class got its name - Instant Messaging (IM).
In 1999, the very first attempt to standardize protocol was made. The Jabber - open-source alternative to ICQ appeared. It had a function of sending messages and files using its own protocol, had client parts for Linux and Windows, and - the most important thing – had gateways to all popular messengers of that time, including ICQ.
In 2004, the XMPP protocol (“eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol”), based on Jabber, was created.
Although XMPP was proclaimed to be a standard for messenger development, it was too knotty. It became even more awkward when a need to “squeeze” new features into the protocol architecture appeared. Now, there are several open-source implementations of XMPP servers and clients.
In 2003 the market was blown up by Skype. It was a new IM application that had a “killer feature” – voice communication. The ability to call on a regular phone number appeared almost immediately – in version 1.2. It was a true revolution. In 2010, developers added an option for group video conferencing. The number of users grew very quickly, and by the end of the year, Skype accounted for about 667 million users.
Since 2010 many IM programs have been introduced to the general public. Between 2011 and 2014, IM programs appeared to be among the most popular ideas for startups. However, it became clear that the development of scalable applications able to run 24/ 7 was a very complicated task.
Enthusiasm is necessary but yet not enough to create an appropriate program. Firstly, the development process requires a tremendous amount of resources for quality assurance, usually not affordable for small companies. Secondly, the “era” of deployment applications for servers in data centers with “real” hardware has passed. Modern messengers have to serve millions of users, and no startup can afford to keep this amount of hardware in reserve.
Today, having a smartphone is almost a must for everyone. This fact led software developers to come up with a simple idea of linking IM-application accounts to phone numbers and to using them for authorization purposes. This idea has been implemented in all modern messengers, such as Telegram, Viber, and WhatsApp. Though they have desktop client applications, you can’t sign up without a phone number.
Telegram has implemented another brilliant idea - channels. A channel is a one-direction communication. The channel owner can post messages, while other users (subscribers) have read-only option, with no possibility to reply or delete messages. However, recent versions of Telegram have allowed subscribers to leave comments on posts.
That's all for now about the messengers’ history. For sure, it will continue, and we’ll see even more cool features. Some of them are even hard to imagine. And once they appear, Inmost will write about them in detail.