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ICQ is an instant messenger client, not unlike AIM, MSN Messenger, or Google Talk. ICQ is not actually an initialism, the name is instead a play on the words, “I seek you,” referring to the way in which ICQ can be used to find old or new friends, and communicate with them.
Instant messaging has existed in one form or another since the early 1970s. In this era people would connect in to one central computer, running an operating system such as UNIX, to do work, post messages, or socialize. Instant messaging services on these old systems would sometimes communicate directly between two people, and sometimes would use a central server. Over time this form of instant messaging grew less popular, although certain forms — such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) — remained very popular until the advent of modern messaging, and still have a sizable following.
America Online’s predecessor, Quantum Link, adopted its own form of instant messaging between users. And later, when America Online was born, America Online Instant Messaging was a part of that service. This early AIM was not, strictly-speaking, a graphical client, but it did include many of the features known today.
In 1996, an Israeli company called Mirabilis released their instant messaging product: ICQ. Mirabilis was funded primarily by one of the founder’s fathers, as well as other small investors. The company relied very little on traditional marketing, instead depending on the viral effect as customers told their friends about it, and their friends in turn told their friends.
ICQ was an innovator in the field of instant messaging. It was the first instant messenger client to truly use a graphical user interface (GUI), and was easy to install and use for almost anyone. There was a time when ICQ was by far the dominant instant messenger client in existence, and for many companies during the dot-com years it was a preferred mode of communication between them and customers.
Rather than making use of unique screen identities chosen by the user, as AIM uses, or using the user’s email address, as MSN Messenger and Google Talk use, ICQ instead created a unique identification number (UIN) for each user. This allows an ICQ user to change every piece of information about their account — screen name, email address, real name, home town — and still have the same primary identification. Since UIN numbers increase sequentially as new users are added, in some circles the length of a person’s ICQ number is looked at as a sign of online “street cred.” A user with a five digit UIN, for example, is obviously an early adopter, as they were one of the first hundred-thousand users. Five and six digit UINs are often seen for sale on eBay, allowing newer ICQ users to acquire an older UIN.
In 1997, America Online released its graphical instant messenger, AIM. In 1998, only two years after the creation of ICQ, America Online acquired the program from Mirabilis for $407 million, in spite of it having no revenue at all. This allowed America Online to have a virtual hegemony over instant messaging until Google Talk and MSN Messenger began grabbing market share.
ICQ still exists, and is still updated regularly. The client has been kept up to modern messaging standards, and now has features such as smilies, multi-user chats, email support, SMS capability, and file transfers. Due in part to a fairly large problem with spam, and aggressive marketing campaigns by AIM, Google Talk, and MSN Messenger — all of which are also associated with very popular existing services — ICQ is no longer the dominant messaging client. Although it continues to survive, and perhaps will once again innovate, for now it remains in a state of relative dormancy.