Before Facebook and MySpace, before you were connecting with friends and family with WhatsApp, there was AIM, probably one of the most recognizable names from the early Internet. If you were a child of the 90s, chances are you used the famous chat program, which was offered as a free service by AOL. It was ahead of its time, and laid the groundwork for many of the services people use today—both social networks and chat platforms. But whatever happened to AIM, and why isn’t it more popular today? Money.
Mashable sat down with a few of AIM’s early developers, and found out that many AOL executives treated the service like it didn’t even exist. AOL was offered as a monthly service that gave users access to the Internet. But AIM didn’t charge a cent, and was therefore seen by executives as a worthless service despite amassing millions of users. Imagine what AIM could be today if not for what’s known as the “innovators dilemma.”
When you think about it, WhatsApp today is essentially doing what AIM did in the 90s, but through mobile, and now that service is worth $19 billion of dollars. But because AOL executives failed to see the value in AIM, the company instead focused on other products while chasing profits, and failing to adapt AIM to a changing messaging landscape. And because AIM was free, that gave AOL executives even more reason to let the service die off.
Today, the more users a platform has, the more valuable it is—Facebook spent a combined $20 billion on Instagram and WhatsApp because of their large numbers of active monthly users. If AOL would have stuck by AIM, it might have become one of the most used chat services today. Instead, it’s mostly a forgotten relic of the early Internet, a memory we look back on on parody Twitter accounts. It all went horribly wrong for AOL. But it could have been so much more.
By the time AOL realized AIM could be profitable, the platform’s popularity had begun to wain, and social networks such as Facebook were used by consumers as a replacement. At its peak, the AIM staff ballooned to around 100, and is now down to just a support staff. Sure, you can still use AIM, but compared to what could have been, the service is nowhere near the level of alternatives such as WhatsApp.
“If AOL had 20/20 hindsight, maybe the story would have had a different ending,” said AIM developer Barry Appelman.