Mashable has a great piece on the history of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), which is a good read for those of you old enough to remember it and young enough to have used it.
AIM played a critical bridge in my life, in between the old BBS days and the Age of Facebook. When my friends all went off the college, instant messaging was the primary way that we stayed in touch. Or got back in touch, as there was a brief gap in between the BBS and ICQ. ICQ was what most of us used before AIM. It was superior in some respects like keeping automatic logs. But AIM understood the Instant in Instant Messaging, and became the default before too long.
Somewhere in the dark recesses of my file server are mountains of old AIM chat logs, sitting next to old BBS logs and some ICQ ones. I was meticulous in my record-keeping. Countless early conversations with Eva, for example, are meticulously recorded. As is the heartbreak that followed. I don’t expect to ever read them, but they’re there for posterity.
With 20/20 hindsight, it’s really kind of surprising that AOL didn’t figure out how to make AIM work for them financially. It was a social network waiting to happen. One that, in my view, could have been strong enough to withstand MySpace and later Facebook had it been remotely well done. They had the userbase, which it turns out is worth quite a lot. There was, as the article says, some critical underinvestment because it didn’t turn around and make money right away for one of the few companies at the time that was used to making money.When Facebook came along, and texting became more prevalent instant messaging (as its own thing) started becoming largely redundant. It’s no coincidence that I discovered Facebook and stopped bothering to install IM apps within a year of one another. Not just because Facebook had its own messaging apparatus, but because it served as the bridge to regular chatting with people that AIM had been.
The company that really ought to be kicking itself is Yahoo. They also had a capable messenger program and a whole lot of the trappings of a social network without managing to put it all together in a Google+ fashion. Given that they were already dependent on advertising revenue, they would have been a natural fit to be a market leader, with comparatively little investment.
Which brings me to Google Plus. Google Plus has hit allegedly hit the skids. The showrunner for G+ has announced his departure and there are rumors that the project is being dismantled, at least somewhat. I personally find Google+ to be superior to Facebook in just about every way except that almost nobody uses. Like Yahoo of yesteryear, Google definitely has the customer base. They’ve got the messenger and more! So why hasn’t G+ succeeded? Timing, as they say, is everything. The key for AOL and Yahoo is that they had an opportunity to jump in the game before Facebook started dominating it. Google entered later.Contra the doomsayers, though, I don’t see Google Plus going anywhere. The key to Google+ is that it is the unifier of the Google platform. It brings together various Google utilities, everything from Android phones to email to messaging to calendar. Where it hasn’t succeeded is as a social network (given that “nobody uses it” problem). But that’s probably okay.
The purpose of running a social network, from a business standpoint, is that you get to know the users better and can sell them more stuff by having a better idea of what they want, and that when they use your products you’re acting as a salesperson. Google owns so much of me and a lot of other people that it’s hardly necessary that I kvetch on G+ instead of Facebook. If Google Plus does pivot, they should actually make it more formally a “home base” and replace the feed streams with useful things. Of course, they’ve cancelled some of those “useful things” like Google Reader and iGoogle, but unless they can make progress on the social networking thing it makes sense to me to revive Reader in some way and transition the mobile Google Now onto the desktop.
Google, though, has lots of options. Yahoo, on the other hand, doesn’t. Their options are much more limited. But at least they’re not AOL, who had everything they needed to take off and didn’t see the money it.