A Brief History of Chat Apps
Modern instant messaging and SMS both began their march to prominence in the early and mid-1990s. The difference between the two is subtle: SMS (the acronym for “short service message”) allows mobile phone users to send each other text messages without an Internet connection, whereas instant messaging enables similar functionality via the web. The first SMS message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom on December 3, 1992, with the words “Merry Christmas.” Israeli firm Mirabilis released the first widely used online messenger, ICQ (short for “I Seek You”), in 1996.
Precursors to ICQ date as far back as 1961 when MIT's Computation Center built the Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS), allowing up to 30 users to log-in concurrently and share text messages. CompuServe's CB Simulator, released in 1980, is generally recognized as the first dedicated online chat service; it required users to pay monthly fees for membership.
In 1985, Commodore launched Quantum Link (or “Q-Link”), an online service for Commodore 64 and 128 that enabled multi-person chat, file sharing, electronic email, games, and news via modem connection. Quantum Link changed its name to America Online (AOL) in 1991, and by the mid-90s was the leading U.S. Internet service provider and portal to the web.
The company launched AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in 1997 and purchased competitor ICQ in 1998 to consolidate its primacy over instant messaging. Along with a few competitors, it also pioneered chat robots like StudyBuddy and SmarterChild that provided information and played games with users.
In 2006, AIM controlled 52 percent of the instant messaging market, but it struggled to monetize and went into rapid decline in the face of competition from services like Google Talk, Yahoo! Chat, MSN Messenger, and Skype. The growing popularity of BlackBerry Messenger in the late 2000s also pointed to a bright future for mobile messaging.
By the time mobile chat apps like WhatsApp and Kik arrived in 2009, SMS was king. Mobile texting became a key mode of global, personal communication, earning billions of dollars for telecommunications companies.
But time and technology did not prove kind to telephone-service companies. As smartphones began to proliferate, messaging apps were an increasingly accessible solution to a simple problem: SMS is expensive in most countries, so why not text or call much more cheaply, or for free, via the mobile web?
SMS volume peaked in 2012, and chat apps surpassed SMS in global message volume for the first time in 2013.4 By January 2015, WhatsApp alone hosted 30 billion messages per day compared to about 20 billion for SMS.5
As Wi-Fi and high-speed mobile networks hit critical mass in many markets, chat apps quickly became multimedia hubs where users could easily share videos, photos, stickers, games, articles, live streams, and more. Between 2013 and 2014, many messengers turned their attention to monetizing their massive audiences, and in doing so introduced tools for publishers and brands.