If you’re old enough to remember a world without smartphones, you’ve probably heard of 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, messaging service, chat rooms, and more. Instant messaging had already been made popular by ICQ and AIM in the previous two years, but the market continued to grow along with the Internet itself. Creation of a competitor based on Yahoo! The chat was easy going and destined for success.
Yahoo! Pager was launched in 1998, with notifications when friends came online or when a Yahoo! An e-mail message has been received and 3 types of status: “available”, “busy” and “on vacation”. The ability to add friends based on their Yahoo! username, which was also visible on other sections of the site, almost transformed Yahoo! in a social network. In 1999 Pager gained voice chat capabilities and was renamed Yahoo! Messenger. That year, the competition grew fiercer with Microsoft’s MSN Messenger.
Ahead of its time
The following year, Yahoo! became a pioneer in mobile instant messaging, signing a deal with Palm to bundle Messenger with its laptops. Versions for Windows CE and mobile phones became available soon after.
A 2000 survey estimated that Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger each had around 10 million users in the United States, with AIM having over 20 million. In late 2001, version 5.0 added file transfer and video chat functionality at 120 x 160 resolution, with one (yes, one) frame per second. Microsoft only offering video chat on Windows Messenger exclusive to Windows XP, it was still the best option for many users.
Yahoo! Messenger continued to grow, reaching around 20 million US users in 2002, but still hadn’t closed the gap with AIM, unlike MSN Messenger.
With version 5.5, video chat quality has been improved to 240 x 320 resolution and 20 FPS. Another feature that turned out to be more influential than it first seemed was the inclusion of emoticons, including animated ones.
Even though Y!M couldn’t match MSN Messenger or AIM in user numbers, its users are estimated to spend significantly more time on the app, averaging 57 minutes per day. Version 6.0, released in 2004, also allows users to listen to radio stations and play two-player games within the app, and share Yahoo! contacts and search results.
This release also introduced stealth mode, with the ability to appear offline for selected contacts or groups. Another cool feature was the ability to use a customizable avatar that would react to chat emoticons as a profile picture. That year, the T-Mobile Sidekick II joined the list of devices running Y!M.
In 2005, the application was renamed Yahoo! Messenger with Voice 7.0, and includes free voicemail, the ability to call landlines for less than Skype, drag-and-drop file sharing, and integration with Yahoo! 360 social network. That year, Yahoo! signed an agreement with Microsoft to interconnect 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, complete with an archive of chat conversations, about a year before Facebook got its own Messenger. It could be considered a revolutionary service if Google Talk hadn’t been around for nearly two years. That year, Y!M’s user count peaked at around 94 million, second only to Windows Live.
Later that year, Yahoo! Messenger for Vista launched with a tabbed interface and design consistent with the new version of Windows. Less than a year later, this version was abandoned and removed from the site. Yahoo! Messenger 9.0 was then released, allowing the integration of content from YouTube and Flickr, then the largest image-sharing site on the Internet. More sites have been added with other 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 former competitors, and before WhatsApp became a messaging.
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 age?
Part of it could be that Yahoo! in general was not as popular as before. Google had written down every other search competitor, including Yahoo!, and elsewhere it had failed to build a successful social network or even a web presence as an actual destination.
Y!M had also become infamous for the amount of spam, or “SPIM” (spam + instant messaging), with no easy solution except to block messages from anyone not on your contact list. Once Facebook and WhatsApp offered messaging apps, Y!M was quickly forgotten as a mobile solution.
Those who stayed with Yahoo! got some important updates in the following years: version 10, released in 2009, offered full-screen video chat 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 stay connected at the same time, alongside Facebook and Twitter integration.
It 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 features were all shut down.
Start over (and start again)
In 2015, Yahoo! launched a completely rebuilt Messenger app, with the ability to “like” or unsend messages, or share Tumblr GIF-style images from within the app, for iOS, Android and the web. This version was as well received as the original, but the market was saturated by then.
Oddly, the original Y!M remained the preferred form of communication for oil traders around the world until 2016, when the new app was released for Windows. The new version, like other modern messaging apps, could not allow them to unsend messages and the fact that they could not be saved offline since the app was not standards compliant of the industry in conversation recording retention.
In 2017, Verizon Media, which had previously acquired AOL, acquired Yahoo!. The following year, Yahoo! Squirrel was launched to replace both Y!M and AIM, with a focus on group chats. Within a year, the app was renamed Yahoo! Together then interrupted.
Another comeback doesn’t seem likely for Yahoo! Messenger, but many still remember it as the first app that gave them a similar experience to modern messaging apps.
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The story of software applications and companies that at one time reached the mainstream and were widely used, but are now gone. We cover the most significant areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.