AOL Instant Messenger is shutting down after 20 years

The pioneering chat app that taught us to text is pulling the plug. On December 15th, AOL Instant Messenger will shut down after running since 1997. AIM dominated online chat in North America at the turn of the century. But with SMS and social apps like Facebook and WhatsApp having conquered chat, AOL is giving up the fight with no planned replacement.

“We know there are so many loyal fans who have used AIM for decades; and we loved working and building the first chat app of its kind since 1997,” AOL wrote on the AIM help page. “Our focus will always be on providing the kind of innovative experiences consumers want. We’re more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.”

TechCrunch reader Daniel Sinclair tipped the shut-down to us, which follows the cut-off of third-party apps back in March. Now AIM’s official MacOS, Windows, iOS and Android apps are being pulled off life support.

“From setting the perfect away message to that familiar ring of an incoming chat, AIM will always have a special place in our hearts,” AOL wrote to users in an email. People can download images they sent until December 15th, but the app’s download links will start disappearing now. Unfortunately there’s no way to save or port your buddy list.

Initially the chat experience built into AOL desktop, AIM launched as a standalone app in 1997. Its iconic Away Messages were the ancestor to the modern tweet and status update. It battled for supremacy with competitors like ICQ, and messengers from Yahoo and Microsoft MSN. But eventually text messaging, Google’s GChat and Facebook took over, while AIM never fully figured out the shift to mobile. That led to AOL’s fall from grace, going from being valued at $224 billion in today’s money to just $4.4 billion when it was sold to Verizon in 2015. For context on the business AOL let slip away, WhatsApp sold that same year to Facebook for more than $19 billion.

Back in March, a former AOL employee told Ars Technica that he estimated AIM usage had sunk to single-digit millions of users, and the cost of AOL keeping the OSCAR messaging protocol running became too high to justify.

Regardless of [Disclosure] TechCrunch being owned by AOL, this moment is bittersweet for me. AIM taught me to write as 12-year old trying to navigate the world of grade-school friendship and romance. I was a shy kid who’d fumble for words in person, but found my voice through the keyboard where I could compose and edit my thoughts before revealing them. After three straight all-night AIM chats, I asked out my first girlfriend, on pins and needles staring at my cathode ray tube until she agreed.

AIM was a domain parents didn’t understand, giving it a feeling of clandestine cool — akin to getting one’s first car but for the internet generation. In fact, it was what first convinced me that social technology would change the way we interact with each other so vividly that it was worth studying and eventually writing about for a living.

So, farewell to AIM and my embarrassing screen name KDog313. Being a teenager will always sound like one of your incoming messages.