If you’re old enough to remember a world without smartphones, you’ve probably heard about Yahoo! Messenger (or Yahoo! the search engine), even if you’ve never used it. The instant messaging client was never the most popular of its kind, but for many years, it was close enough to keep trying, introducing many features years before they became the norm.
In 1998, Yahoo! was the most visited site on the web, with an index of recommended websites, an email service, chat rooms, and more. Instant messaging had already been made popular by ICQ and AIM in the previous two years, but the market was still growing along the internet itself. Creating a competitor based on Yahoo! Chat was easy and destined for success.
Yahoo! Pager was launched in 1998, with notifications when friends came online or when a Yahoo! Mail message was received, and 3 status types: “available,” “busy” and “on vacation.” The ability to add friends based on their Yahoo! username, which was visible on other sections of the site as well, almost turned Yahoo! into a social network. In 1999, Pager gained voice chat capabilities and was renamed Yahoo! Messenger. That year, competition became fiercer with Microsoft’s MSN Messenger.
Ahead of Its Time
The following year, Yahoo! became a pioneer in the mobile IM area, signing a deal with Palm to bundle Messenger with its handheld computers. Versions for Windows CE and mobile phones became available shortly after.
One survey from 2000 estimated that Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger each had about 10 million users in the U.S., with AIM having more than 20 million. In late 2001, version 5.0 added file-transfer capabilities, and video chatting at a 120 x 160 resolution, with one (yes, one) frame per second. With Microsoft only offering video chatting on the Windows XP-exclusive Windows Messenger, it was still the best option for many users.
Yahoo! Messenger kept growing, reaching about 20 million U.S. users in 2002, but still hadn’t closed the gap from AIM, while MSN Messenger did.
With version 5.5, the video-chat quality was improved to a 240 x 320 resolution and 20 FPS. Another feature that turned out to be more influential than it seemed at first was the inclusion of emoticons, including animated ones.
Even though Y!M couldn’t match MSN Messenger or AIM by number of users, its users were estimated to spend much more time on the app, with an average of 57 minutes per day. Version 6.0, released in 2004, also let users listen to radio stations and play two-player games within the app, and share Yahoo! contacts and search results.
That version also introduced Stealth Mode, with the ability to appear offline to selected contacts or groups. Another cool feature was the ability to use a customizable avatar that would react to the conversation’s emoticons as the profile picture. That year, the T-Mobile Sidekick II joined the list of devices running Y!M.
In 2005, the app was renamed Yahoo! Messenger with Voice 7.0, and included free voicemail, the ability to call landline phones for less than it was with Skype, drag-and-drop file sharing, and integration with the forgotten Yahoo! 360 social network. That year, Yahoo! signed an agreement with Microsoft to interconnect the Windows Live and Yahoo! messengers. The feature was enabled in Y!M with Voice 8.0 in 2006.
In 2007, Yahoo! released Messenger for the Web, with an online conversation archive, about a year before Facebook had its own Messenger. It could be seen as a revolutionary service if Google Talk hadn’t existed for almost two years. That year Y!M’s number of users peaked at an estimated 94 million, second only to Windows Live.
Later that year, Yahoo! Messenger for Vista was launched with a tabbed interface and a design consistent with the new Windows version. Less than a year later, that version was discontinued and removed from the site. Yahoo! Messenger 9.0 then saw the light, allowing embeds of content from YouTube and Flickr — then the largest image-sharing site on the internet. More sites were added with further updates…
An Image Problem
Y!M had a Symbian version in 2006, a Blackberry version in 2007, and an iPhone version in 2009: after Facebook, but before Facebook Messenger or any of Yahoo!’s old competitors, and before WhatsApp became a messaging app.
Unlike Flickr 1.0, the iPhone app was generally well-received, so why hasn’t it become the most popular messaging app of the mobile era?
Part of it might be that Yahoo! in general wasn’t as popular as it was before. Google had deprecated all other search competitors, including Yahoo!, and elsewhere it had failed to create a successful social network or even web presence as an actual destination.
Y!M had also become infamous for the amount of spam, or “SPIM” (spam + instant messaging) on it, with no easy solution except for blocking messages from everyone not on your contact list. Once Facebook and WhatsApp offered messaging apps, Y!M was quickly forgotten as a mobile solution.
Those who stuck with Yahoo! got a few significant upgrades in the following years: version 10, released in 2009, offered full-screen video chatting with improved quality. An Android version became available in 2010. The following year, version 11 finally offered online archiving of conversations, allowing multiple devices to remain signed in at the same time, alongside Facebook and Twitter integration.
That was the last major Windows release of the classic app. In late 2012 and early 2013, public chat rooms, interoperability with Windows Live Messenger, and the app’s phone capabilities were all shut down.
Starting Over (and Over)
In 2015, Yahoo! launched a completely rebuilt Messenger app, with the ability to “like” or unsend messages, or share GIF-style images from Tumblr from within the app, for iOS, Android and the web. That version was as well received as the original one, but the market had become saturated by then.
Bizarrely, the original Y!M had remained the preferred form of communication among oil traders around the world until 2016, when the new app was released for Windows. The new version, like other modern messaging apps, couldn’t serve them as the ability to unsend messages and the fact that they couldn’t be saved offline from within the app didn’t comply with the industry standards of keeping conversation records.
In 2017, Verizon Media, which had already acquired AOL, purchased Yahoo!. The year after that, Yahoo! Squirrel was released to replace both Y!M and AIM, with a focus on group chats. Within a year, the app was renamed Yahoo! Together and then discontinued.
Another comeback doesn’t seem likely for Yahoo! Messenger, but many still remember it as the first app that gave them an experience similar to that of modern messaging apps.
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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.