Welcome to the third generation of Instant Messaging! Part 1/2

by Nicolas Verite

CC by-sa, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 international

Real-time, synchronous text messaging has come a long way!

In the “old days” (some would call that pre-history), the concept was simple - we used Talk on Unix to log in to a machine remotely and chat with another local user on that machine. There were no chat rooms, authentication, authorisation or basic encryption that seem so obvious, ubiquitous and indispensable today.

Then IRC came as an open standard, introducing multi-party chat rooms as a main feature. Different flavors of non-standard extensions, and disjointed networks soon followed. One of the most irritating issues was (and still is) the infamous netsplits. The sum of all IRC networks now only totals fewer than a stable 1 million users worldwide.

This era was very diverse and laid the ground for future developments; however the concept introduced in this period was just that of “chat”. The next step - moving to actual Instant Messaging - is where our journey really begins.

1st generation: instant messengers, ICQ-like

The instant messenger revolution started around 1998 and 1999 with ICQ as the very first successful player. Then Yahoo!Messenger, AIM and MSN/WLM followed, as well as Gadu-Gadu, QQ, NateOn, LiveJournal, MySpaceIM, Google Talk, and many more, including the only open standard, XMPP or Jabber (not mentioning SIP/SIMPLE here).

a. Sporadic internet connection

In those times, most people connected to the internet using a landline modem. It was slow, expensive and worst of all - loud and annoying (who can forget the “iiiiiiii-eeeeeeee-iii” sound accompanying every session?). No one would connect to the internet for longer than one, maybe two hours since it blocked the phone and ended up costing a fortune.

b. Presence, synchronicity of the user experience

In the very first instant messengers, the concept around which everything revolved was presence, as a core and central feature. When you opened the app you saw a roster listing all your contacts and their status indicated whether they were online or not. Large, blinking icons informed you who was available, busy or away at the moment. Prominent sound notifications let you know the current status of your friends. When logging in, by default, you too were broadcasting to the world that you were online. In both directions, people just wanted to know in real-time who was available to chat, and then engaged in discussion sessions.

c. Desktop-only client

Obviously, the first generation of IM was desktop-only (laptops were still a minority). That meant low bandwidth (before ADSL), but large, comfortable computing resources. Mobile phone screens were just about one or two lines of text in large black LCD pixels, and had no data network (spoiler: the second generation of IM is all about the smartphone).

d. Multi-window software is cool

Since presences and availabilities in the contact list were the main focus, the second most important was the chat window(s). IM clients were multi-window (one window per chat) or dual-window (all chats in one window with tabs). Multi-window software was a cool thing at that time, in photo editing, non-linear video editing, and many more. These were more or less targetted at power users.

e. Group chat as a secondary feature

Group chat was a secondary feature. Lots of room types and features were available: public vs hidden, permanent vs short-lived, whitelists vs blacklists, kick vs ban, etc. You could join group chats after you connected, but participants were not necessarily there all at the same time. Anyone could be suddenly disconnected, for whatever reason (modem stability, or parents taking over the phone). You would miss all the conversations happening while you were offline, and besides this, rooms were cluttered with automatic status messages (Mary joined, John disconnected).

f. Offline messages and logs, easing the suffering of absence

Offline messages (sometimes called store-and-forward) and chat logs were made to fix a few of this “chat while I’m not online” issues (the equivalent of the “leave me a message” phone voicemail). But this feature was very limited, being designed only as a workaround, and IM servers being made only for real-time routing and not for storage.

g. File transfers

The defacto standard of file transfers was more or less fixing a problem that was not specifically linked to IM, but was rather leveraging the intrinsic synchronous nature of its usage. At the time sending “large” (2MB) files by email was impossible, either because waiting for the progress bar to finish and closing the mail composition window took too long, and/or the servers had file size limits. It was a fully synchronous user experience: the sender proposes a file and waits, and the receiver accepts the file and waits for the progress. Sometimes the file proposal could wait for a long time, or even timeout or fail. Most had limited bandwidth, and some had censorship (that would be hidden as “security”).

Also, the file transfer was out of band, meaning it was made outside the context of a chat. No marker in the conversation made you aware you had that file transfer in the past. You had another window for all past file transfers.

h. IM with VoIP, not “VoIP applications”

Some IM services offered voice and video in a time when computers were not equipped with built-in webcams and the quality was poor. Most voice and video features were one-to-one and almost none was compatible with landline and cell phones.

i. Specificities: gadgets ;-) and ads :’(

I couldn’t end this review of the first generation without mentioning all the now defunct gadgets, such as buzz/nudge/wizz/attention, and other mood, activity, music, video.


To conclude, the first generation of IM was highly synchronous, with a lot of technology and user experience limitations, that were later fixed or mostly addressed by the second generation of IM…

2nd generation: mobile messaging apps

The mobile messaging revolution started with the massive consumer growth of multi-touch smartphones, beggining with the iPhone in 2007 and Android in 2008. The new buzzword became “app”. Not software, client, user agent, or even application, just app. A new generation, a reboot.

Among the most well known mobile messaging apps of the second generation were WhatsApp (which was based on XMPP in the beginning and then evolved). In no particular order the other 2nd generation players are WeChat, LINE, Google Hangouts, Viber, KakaoTalk, Telegram, ChatON, Hike, Kik, and probably Facebook Messenger (who are still competing with WhatsApp, despite owning them).

I am not including here BlackBerry and BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) which were aimed at a more confidential, elite market. Also at the time Skype was only a P2P voice and video call software.

a. Always-on, asynchronous user experience

With the advent of the smartphone, having an always-on internet connection became the norm. Being offline became only an exception, a temporary state. This brought on a massive change in all our lives: from being always OFF (except for a few minutes), to always ON (except for a few minutes).

Mobile messaging apps acquired most user experience from SMS and MMS: as they were always on a network, people would not feel the need to respond immediately anymore. People were finally freed from the obligation to stay on their IM app together at the same time.

This is how IM became asynchronous. Just send a message, you will probably have a reply, someday.

b. Presence became secondary, sometimes useless

Consequently, presence became significantly less necessary. App makers and users simply started considering presence as a bandwidth, scalability, and battery killer. Presence either became secondary or even was completely removed.

c. Mobile-only

The smartphone revolution was so fast and crazy that the first app makers completel forgot the deskop. Lots did mobile-ony apps. And in the later days of the 2nd generation, most of them evolved slowly to mobile-first apps. This was a great period as all the usages were completely reviewed from the ground up and a fully new user experience was created.

d. Full screen is obvious (no windows)

Smartphone apps are naturally full-screen, thus mono-window by nature, maximised to fit screen. Of course some tablet/phablet makers propose types of split screens, but the app stays in one window. The late days of 2nd generation IM saw desktop apps and web apps appear. Desktop apps were mostly based on web technologies, probably for cost saving. Most of them were mono-window, with some weird exceptions.

e. Simplified group chat, still a secondary feature

All the complexities of group chat usage and administration went away. Group chat was made simple, possibly too much so sometimes in second generation IMs finding the admin, if there is any, is a difficult mission as there is no UI, only a hidden command line. That is due mainly to the race between IM makers and the limited possibilities of small smartphone screens. Also implementors kept it to a bare minimum, as that was enough to satisfy most users’ needs. Last but not least, one-to-one or group chat conversations were treated equally.

f. Multi-device: transparent real-time synchronisation

The very limited offline messages of the 1st generation were replaced by a full blown account archive approach for all the messages. Synchonisation of the devices with the central message archive has been made transparent to the user. All the apps connected to a unique account, whether they were on smartphone brand, or another tablet brand, were able to be in full sync, in real-time. The multi-device user experience became the following: start a conversation on one device, continue on another, and finish on a third one. All sent and received messages are consistent across devices, in real-time.

g. In-chat media, no more “file transfer”

File proposition and wait for acceptation has been phased out. Since the connectivity was not predictible, one could not afford the wait for a contact to be online and willing to accept the file. So, IM makers promoted media files as the equal of messages. Photos and pictures, short sounds & videos, potentially any file, plus location could be sent like any other message, and received, notified and archived exaclty like any other message. The user experience for the sender was just a simple file selection, and click/tap send button… then put back the smartphone in the pocket, or type your next message. The app simply takes care about the rest. The user experience for the receiver was just a single notification for the media, like any other type of message. Of course, most apps offer an option to download large files only on wifi, in order to protect the data plan from overspending. The propose/accept UX was disrupting the conversation. With in-chat media, the UX became a single, continuous flow inside the same conversation.

h. Voice and video, better hardware

Real progress was made on voice and video, thanks to better hardware, with de facto standardisation and front camera in smartphones, and later front webcams in laptops. Also, in the late 2nd gen large bandwidth improvements were made thanks to 3G, and then 4G on mobile, and ADSL and optic fiber at home. People now expect most voice calls to work at least with the same quality as regular cell and landline phones. Video calls are much more sensitive to bandwidth limitations, thus users are still prepared to accept some glitches (although the degree of acceptance varies depending on whether it’s personal or business use).

i. Specificities: message actions, mentions, and… sticker craze!

On IM, typos are expected, as you type fast on a small keyboard, and you have auto-correct. Now, you can make sent message corrections. After a message was sent (and probably received), you now have the possibility to edit it on both ends (including archive).

Also, lots of apps propose the capacity to reply to a specific message, to quote or forward or resend a message, and to mention someone with the @nickname notation. These features have made chat much more mature.

A feature has also been borrowed from SMS and largely enhanced: the markers for sent, received, read. That was showed by ticks, labels, or simply metadata text. Some even went further with watermarking a conversation, saying a contact has read all messages until this one.

Stickers, stickers and stickers! Lots of IM apps proposed stickers. You could send a conversation-wide image, cuter and richer than smileys. Stickers are also much lighter than images, as they are just a suite of characters sent over the wire, sticker images being stored locally on each device. These enabled people to convey emotion much more rapidly and with more fun. Some made stickers a source of revenue, selling sticker packs, or letting advertisers pay to propose free-to-the-consumer, branded stickers packs.


The second generation is the era that made IM asynchronous, and long-lived. Much like the SMS experience from which it borrowed a lot, but also to which it added great maturity.

The second part of this article is focussed specifically on the third generation of Instant Messaging and is coming next week. Stay tuned and get a grasp of the undergoing revolution.

You can now read the second part of “Welcome to the third generation of Instant Messaging!”/


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