Do you remember the annoying and insistent “buzz” on Messenger? Do you admit having paid to download WhatsApp? Are you one of those who have used emoticons ad nauseam? If you answered yes, congratulations, you have seen the entire evolution of instant messaging apps.
Of course, this also implies belonging to a generation that saw in these services an opportunity to connect immediately with friends and family, something that has led to the current –and most widely used– whatsapp or telegram.
Now, there was a time when these applications did not even exist and, logically, the conversations took place in systems very different from the current ones. The passage of time, however, has been kind to these and, in some cases, they are still with us.
However, the path of WhatsApp or Telegram has not been easy, due to its massive adoption by society as a whole, a fact that may contradict regional legislation, especially in the European Union, where data protection rights they are almost sacred.
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Although without a doubt they paved the way for other instant messaging services that would reach millions and millions of users. The same ones that started a revolution that survives to this day. This is the history of instant messaging.
The origin of instant messaging: from the ‘zoon politikon’ to the beginning of computing
The human being is a zoon politikonor “political animal” by the current translation of the term raised by the philosopher Aristotle in the most reflective beginnings of humanity.
Summarized above, this translation refers to the human being as a subject that has the capacity to relate politically, being able to create societies and organize people’s lives.
Previously, the method of communication for the posterity of the human being had been the tablets –like those of Ancient Egypt–, although the chosen material, clay, was not a great friend of the passage of time.
In 1982, the Commodore 64 computer – which sold 30 million units – was a reflection of what Aristotle had proposed. His software Quantum Link –also known as Q-Link– allowed users to send messages online.
Years later, in 1991, its name would become America Online (AOL), which would play an important role in the development of instant messaging applications and, of course, in the development of the societies we know.
The 20 years that gave rise to WhatsApp and Telegram
There was a time when something as simple as sending a message could be a huge headache. At the beginning, they began to experiment with chats in real time –the primitive Internet already allowed this–, but everything changed with IRC (Internet Relay Chat).
This allowed 2 or more people to enter into the same conversation over the Internet, thereby exponentially increasing the potential functionalities of the protocol. The great novelty, created by Jarkko Oikarinen, was to offer servers with numerous channels.
Although we would have to wait for the birth of ICQ –a play on words with “I seek you”, whose translation in Spanish is “I am looking for you”–, which completely modified the rules established in 1996.
At the beginning of everything, this platform was created by the Israelis Arik Vardi, Yair Goldfinger, Sefi Vigiser and Amnon Amir. However, the funds were insufficient for its continuity, so Yossi Vardi, Arik’s father, had to invest in the company, named Mirabilis.
Among the great innovations that ICQ brought to the field of instant messaging, are the profile customization, notification sounds, connection states, emoticons, transferring contacts and files, sending SMS, playing games or making group chats.
In 1998, it had achieved such popularity that the AOL company acquired it for 287 million dollars at the time, a purchase that marked the clearest beginning of this type of platform. This same year Yahoo! Pager, later renamed Yahoo! Messenger.
Yahoo!, MSN, Google Talk and Skype, a world in the making
The 21st century was the starting point for the platforms we know today. Just a year before the turn of the millennium, Microsoft ventured with Messenger –MSN– in the adventure of instant messaging platforms.
Precisely, MSN used the AIM network –America-Online Instant Messenger–, with functions that users loved at that time, such as buzzing, the “invisible” option, winks or the status bar.
The following year, Microsoft renamed it Windows Live Messenger, which would reach its highest user share in 2009, when 330 million users globally used it every month.
Microsoft would also buy Skype on May 10, 2011 for 8,500 million dollars, a company that had been founded in 2003 by the Dane Hanus Friis and the Swede Niklas Zennström and which, in 2005, was bought by eBay for 5,900 million.
The success of Skype translated into the removal of MSN as an instant messaging platforma path that lasted until March 2014, at which time the MSP protocol stopped working for good.
At this time he was also born Google Talk, whose release date of the beta version occurred on August 24, 2005. At the beginning, it was only available for Gmail users, although it would reach Android 2 years later, thus increasing its potential users.
Google Talk would end up as an update, in the Google application store, of the Hangouts we know today.
On the contrary, AOL sold ICQ to Digital Sky Technologies in 2010 for 187.5 million dollars, an acquisition harshly criticized for allegedly compromising the security of users, since this company was based in Russia –under the mail.ru service– .
WhatsApp and Telegram, the instant messaging that triumphs today
Thanks to the experience acquired at Yahoo, Jan Koum and Brian Acton –who had a total of 20 years of experience in the company– decided to found WhatsApp, as a pun on “What’s Up?”, whose translation in Spanish is ” How are you?”.
The star application of our times was born, curiously, due to the refusal of Facebook –the current Meta– to add both founders to its staff. As if that were not enough, Meta would acquire the company some time later.
The original idea of WhatsApp was to propose an alternative, with end-to-end encryption, to traditional SMS. With the launch of the first iPhone in 2007its founders had a clear strategy: an application in beta phase that offered something differential.
But the greatest success came with its landing on Android, in 2010since only BBM existed as instant messaging apps –which was exclusive to the defunct BlackBerry–, in addition to the aforementioned Google Talk and Skype, which did not use the user’s phone number.
Since then, her career has not been without controversy: she was banned for 4 days from the iTunes Store for problems related to personal data; and in 2013, she started charging 0.99 euros for downloading her, among others.
However, it has become the quintessential app around the world, at least in the West, since other regions such as Line or WeChat appear in mainly Asian regions, which we will only mention because of their minority use.
Going back to WhatsApp, in 2022 it achieved the figure of 7,000 million daily voice messages. But another company is close behind, which is the current best alternative to the Meta app, Telegram.
This application has not been exempt from criticism either, since its origin dates back to August 14, 2013, the date on which the Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov launched the instant messaging service.
In the case of these brothers, their path had been exile from Russia, due to positions opposed to the government of that time.
The turning point did not come until 2021, when the service began to be financed from a self-financing organization responsible for its development, whose operations center was located in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) and registered parent company in the British Virgin Islands.
During that same year, Telegram already had 500 million monthly active users and 1 billion downloads in different app stores.
Despite this, in 2023 it still continues to receive complaints related to data protection, child pornography and intellectual property. For this reason, it seems that WhatsApp has no rival at the moment. Although it is quite clear that apps come and go marking generations.