ICQ was amongst the first instant messengers I ever used. Right along with AIM. It was weird twist of fate that led me to use these 2 softwares. They were the only chat softwares at the time which supported HTTP proxy servers, and I was stuck behind an oppressive firewall. (Academic firewalls on a dial-up connection. Those were the days.) My quest back in those days was to find softwares that could log me through those pesky firewalls. The late 20th century was a hard place to be. Yeah, we did have Sock2HTTP (the only way I could use IRC) and a HTTP tunneling software that I just couldn't get to work, but nevertheless ICQ was discovered.
Since its inception, ICQ had spread via word of mouth. And had gone on to become really popular. It was filled with features. A million of them. It supported offline messages, had a searchable people's directory. Multiplayer games. Multi-user chats. And many others I cannot recall. It seemed cute at the time. Cluttered, overloaded but it worked. It already had a large user base when I joined. You got to chat with people. With strangers. Hell, even with spambots.
You got a UIN (a sequential number) when you registered, and henceforth you could give yourself any chatname you wished. It was a flexible idea. I do find it tiring to keep having to choose a unique username, which eventually becomes a mix of numbers and symbols that mean nothing to you or anybody.
ICQ was a homonym for 'I Seek You'. It was started way back in 1996 by a company called Mirabilis, a small startup from Israel. In 1998, it was bought over by the great AOL. The company that seems to buy a LOT of good things for a LOT of money and then push them slowly off the edge in an act of induced tough love.
I could blame its takeover by AOL as the reason why it failed. But that wouldn't be true. Because even at its height of popularity, it was still an AOL product. AOL, of course was on a mission to takeover the chatting world, with a combination of AIM, ICQ and techniques to prevent other chat softwares for communicating with them.(See AOL's Proposal Fails To Placate Messaging Rivals). During the takeover, ICQ had 11.4 million users, AIM had a 20 million users. ICQ was growing at a rate of 57000 users a day. A large advertising base for AOL. Now during the takeover of ICQ, there was a lot of discontentment. (See ICQ Fans Rage Against AOL), but AOL did keep ICQ a separate brand for quite some time. Only in 2002 did the 2 networks meet. That was around the time ICQ stopped being advertisement-free.
The rivals were working there way into the IM market. Microsoft did what it always does, a quiet-slow-stuffing-down-the-throat-of-newbies approach to getting its own messenger popular. And while AOL resisted the attempts at universal chat clients, the bandwagon effect couldn't hold people to AOL and ICQ for too long. Not when you had a lot of efficient and simpler softwares out there.
I think the failure of ICQ was the reason why it got famous in the first place. There were way too many features. And they went on a crazed rampage, adding new features every version, but not removing the bugs from before. The tool was soon bloated and took a good amount of memory. Spammers found the perfect tool with its offline directory list to target. (AOL really has no clue how to take care of good pieces of software.)
So with all the features that ICQ seemed to boast off, the future of the internet has always seemed to be minimalist, or so I think. (Think of all the new trends out there.)
A Take on the ICQ vs AIM debate, and a look at chat culture itself - Instantaneity - A Brief and Uninformed History
People do wonder - What happened to ICQ?
Time Magazine looks at the controversy of universal chat clients - All Together Now
David Lawrence talks why the merger makes sense to the music industry - ICQ vs. AIM vs. AIMster
The fears of an ICQ takeover revisited - AOL/ICQ Acquisition Revisited