A little bit of unexpected news regarding AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) came to my attention recently. It was unexpected, because other than its recent merger with Verizon, when is the last time you even heard anything about AOL?
On Tuesday, AOL (yes, it’s still around) suddenly announced to users of AOL Instant Messenger (including yours truly) that it would be disabling older, and less-secure access to its network through at least one third-party messaging app (Adium) as of March 28.
UPDATE Wednesday 3:40pm ET: Specifically, the company is yanking support for the MD5 hash function associated with password authentication. For nearly a decade, that function has been dubbed as “cryptographically broken.” Some third-party chat apps like Adium, Trillian, or Pidgin had been using MD5 to authenticate logins.
“It presents a security hole, so we want them to move completely out,” Le told Ars on Wednesday.
Gizmodo explains in a little more detail:
It’s so far unclear if and when other third-party messaging services, like Pidgin and Trillian, will notify their users. However, Ars Technica spoke to a former AOL employee who said that the company was shutting down its OSCAR chat protocol since the number of users “had fallen to ‘single digit millions’ and that maintaining OSCAR had become prohibitively expensive.” In other words, if you can’t afford the hospital bills, you might as well pull the plug.
AIM won’t be completely dead, however. The service will remain on life support through AOL’s standalone apps for macOS and Windows, as well as mobile apps for iOS and Android. Assuming that these apps aren’t cheap to maintain either—and that AIM will continue to bleed users—we can assume the service’s days are numbered. We’ve reached out to AOL to learn more about AIM’s demise, and will update this post when we hear back.
Some people might want argue to with me about AIM being the granddaddy of social media, but while there were things like BBS services and ICQ before AOL came along, I would argue AIM that was the first social media platform that really got people talking to each other over the internet and made an impact on society at large. The instant messaging platform dominated the late 1990s and the early 2000s, and remained significant until about 2008, when the rising prominence of Facebook, Google’s chat services, and Skype combined to create a triple threat that AIM couldn’t cope with.
An article from Mashable explains that the primary reason for AIM’s decline was AOL’s inability to successfully monetize it despite AIM being AOL’s most well-known product. This is surprising given the success of later social media companies, but AIM’s developers found many of their ideas and innovations blocked as AOL’s executives questioned the costs involved to develop and maintain them, which left AIM increasingly outdated as new generations of IM services and new generations of Americans began getting involved with social media.
By 2011, AIM held only a 0.7% share of the instant messaging market. That’s a long fall for a platform that was once the king of social media, before the term “social media” even became widely used.
The wind-down of AIM shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. AOL never successfully transitioned to the high speed internet era, and increasingly has reinvented itself under the guidance of Tim Armstrong as an advertising company. Verizon recently purchased AOL for its ad platform, and its internet services and products are increasingly viewed as undesirable “legacy” products to be wound down, despite such things as dial-up service continuing to bring the company a significant amount of income.
AIM, of course, is one of these legacy products, and most of the team working on it was fired in 2012, leaving only a handful of staffers in place, which ensured the platform’s eventual demise. With old versions and third party access now disabled in AOL’s latest move, and only the official 8.0 version available for use, I frankly do not expect what’s left of the IM service to remain active for long. I would not be surprised if it is completely discontinued this time next year.
I admit to being a bit sad watching the end come for AIM, as I met many good friends while using the service, who I still remain in contact with today. However, all good things come to an end, and AIM is no exception to this rule.
For those who are interested, Entrepreneur has a detailed graph showing the rise and fall of various messaging services.