What has become of ICQ?

ICQ, short for “I Seek You,” laid the groundwork for standalone instant messaging clients when it debuted in November 1996. Think about how long ago that was…

Microsoft’s trailblazing Windows 95 was barely a year old, Nintendo had just introduced the N64, and those with a reason to have a cell phone actually used it to talk on.

Launched after less than two months of development by the Israeli company Mirabilis, ICQ predated and influenced many popular chat programs of the era, including AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger.

Incredibly, ICQ has also outlasted its chief competitors: AIM shut down at the end of 2017, Yahoo’s communications program bit the bullet in mid-2018, and Microsoft laid its Messenger client to rest in 2014.

ICQ offered several innovative features, including multi-user chat, async offline messaging, resumable file transfers, and a searchable directory.

Users were issued a unique User Identification Number, or UIN, upon registration. This number (I somehow still remember mine by heart some 20 years later), along with custom handles and an attached email address, were used to search for other users on the platform.

Mirabilis enjoyed first-mover advantage, attracting millions of early Internet users enticed by the proposition of chatting with friends and family in real-time. ICQ’s success also captivated potential suitors, prompting AOL to ink a check to the tune of $287 million for the entirety of Mirabilis’ assets in 1998. Contingency payments that started in fiscal 2001 reportedly totaled an additional $120 million, pushing the total value of the deal over $400 million.

America Online would manage to grow ICQ’s user base tenfold over the next three years, surpassing more than 100 million registered users by the spring of 2001.

The coming decade would again reinvent personal communication, driving conversations from mouse and keyboard to mobile devices. AOL must have saw the writing on the wall as it offloaded ICQ to Russian investment firm Digital Sky Technologies (later known as Group, now VK) in 2010 for $187.5 million.

Some may be surprised to learn that ICQ is still around, although it no longer seems to be under active development. In recent years, the platform appears to have shifted its focus toward desktop applications (Windows, Mac, and even Linux) and includes a web-based version that runs in browsers.

The latest stable release for the desktop was in April 2023, while the Android and iOS apps have been retired from the official App Stores while owner VK is promoting VK messenger instead. The app is still available from Huawei’s AppGallery though.

Today’s ICQ is a far cry from the basic UI of yesteryear, featuring a modern design with familiar features such as push audio messages, video calls, and stickers. It also includes smart replies and autofill, similar to the capabilities found in Gmail. Nonetheless, the core functionality – the ability to chat with friends and family – remains intact.

Those expecting an experience similar to what the original desktop app offered will likely be disappointed, as the current version has much more in common with modern chat apps than with vintage instant messaging clients.

According to VK, as of 2022, the instant messaging platform was used by 11 million people each month. Surely, it’s not nearly as popular as it once was, but it’s still operational, which is more than most of its early competitors can claim.

Image: Joyu Wang, WSJ

In early 2021, when WhatsApp updated its privacy policy, several users in Hong Kong ditched the Facebook-owned app in favor of a nostalgic alternative. Downloads of ICQ jumped 35-fold in that week, surpassing the total number of downloads during the entire fourth quarter of 2020.

If you’re interested in reconnecting with old contacts, it would be safe to assume that most users have moved on to other platforms. Most won’t mistake ICQ a pillar of privacy, considering it is owned and operated by VK, the Russian internet services group formerly known as Group.

In this era of tech sanctions and restrictions, we’ve learned that at some point, the Russian government required certain apps to be installed on new phones sold in the country, and ICQ was one of those apps. However, in an informal survey we conducted among Russian users, they indicated that the most popular communication platforms in the country are Telegram, WhatsApp, and VK, with Viber falling out of favor.

But… do you still remember your UIN?

TechSpot’s “What Ever Happened to…” Series

The story of software apps and companies that at one point hit mainstream and were widely used, but are now gone. We cover the most prominent areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.

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