Technology ages in dog years. So, when a once ground-breaking messaging (and eventually video calling) app hits the age of 21, it’s the equivalent in human terms of being…old. Really, really old.
Such is the fate of ICQ. Once the darling of late-90s tech geeks, before becoming the platform of choice for 100 million people, it has faded from view in the U.S., although it still flourishes in Russia (unsurprisingly, since it was bought by the MAIL.ru group).
Still, we think the unbroken existence and evolution of ICQ, which was launched in 1996, is something to celebrate. It was born into a time of pagers and palm pilots, a time before Google or Skype, a time when there was a Clinton in the Whitehouse.
However, by its own marketing admission ICQ is today a “simple way to communicate and nothing extra”. That’s more than just a poor slogan, it’s the truth. Which is why we’re going to posit that ICQ is best left as a curiosity.
A History of Video Calling
ICQ was one of the original wunderkinds of the internet age. It was created and released by four Israeli high school kids, and went on to rival the world’s largest messaging apps. It predated the messaging services of AOL and Yahoo, and grew so quickly in popularity it was bought by AOL for $400 million just two years after its launch.
And there begins a strange history of continued innovation largely left unsupported by ownership. AOL never dropped its own messaging service, creating a conflict of interest, and when its fortunes dipped in the early Millennium years ICQ went with them.
It lingered on in virtual anonymity, still striking a number of firsts–including voice chats in 2003, SMS links between phones and PCs, early peer-to-peer development, and early adoption of integration with Facebook, Twitter, and the emerging social networks–before it was sold to the Russian group in 2010 for less than $200 million.
All advertising of ICQ was removed from the web by 2012, and despite the claims by MAIL.ru that it is going to stage an ICQ comeback, the app now has almost 90 million fewer users than during its peak years.
So, is there any value in using the app today?
ICQ Video Calling
In two words: Not really. I personally found the ICQ experience a little cumbersome.
Even the signup process is overly complicated. It took me several attempts to create an account, and at no time was I prompted to create a password–which meant when I later tried to log back in with an email address, I couldn’t, as there never was a password created that I could now put to use. After some fluffing around I used my phone number, but with that method you have to wait for an SMS entry code to be sent to your phone every time you log in, and that’s far from convenient.
Once inside the app you’re confronted with a host of group chat rooms where you can meet friends in a public space, or get to know the strangers already inside. I’m not a fan of anonymous meet and greets in unknown chat rooms, but if you are there are plenty to choose from…especially if you speak Russian.
That aside, the video calling function is straightforward and reliable enough, in my experience. You can exchange the now ubiquitous stickers and emojis, and ICQ has lost none of the cheerful status and room icons that once made it a standout. There’s also basic file sharing. Sending pics and videos and files around is always a handy function, even if it, too, is now a common one. And the service operates across devices, though that’s also become commonplace in the video chat marketplace.
That’s where the trouble lies for ICQ. Rather than capitalize on its early momentum and become synonymous with online communication, like Skype did, it still acts like a startup. And you’ll no doubt have problems convincing your friends there’s any reason to switch from their favorite apps to join in your nostalgic voyage.
ICQ Doesn’t Belong on Anyone’s Best Chat App List
Not only does ICQ no longer stand as an innovator, it lacks some basic video calling functions. You can’t send or receive messages without being actively logged in to the service, and it is littered with spam. Also, the security concerns that plagued its early years–there was once no encryption at all–still resonate with users of today’s version.
Maybe MAIL.ru makes good on its stated intention to reinvigorate and relaunch ICQ for a new
generation, but in the meantime there’s no reason to drop your current video chat service, or advocate for your friends to do the same.
It’s a pity ICQ never enjoyed the success its early progress suggested was its destiny, but it is still remarkable that so seminal a work continues to exist at all. Vine lasted four years, AOL fell from grace long ago, and Nintendo has had its share of wilderness years, while ICQ still keeps drawing breath.
Image Source: Flickr CC User Tatiana Bolshakova