What’s ever happened to MSN Messenger?

That was in the late 90s, and social media platforms like MySpace and Facebook did not yet exist. Texting was still in its infancy as very few people actually owned cell phones at the time. Email was a popular method of communication among those with access to a computer, but it lacked the real-time feel that makes personal conversation so appealing.

For that, you needed an instant messaging program, and when the mainstream internet movement really started to take root, there were four major competitors vying for the position: AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger.

Microsoft’s participation was launched on July 22, 1999, which was already late given that ICQ had been around for almost three years, and AOL followed suit with AIM in the spring of 1997. Even Yahoo’s messaging client hit Microsoft’s market with over a year , but as Microsoft proved, you do not have to be the first to reach the top.

A key decision at the time was Microsoft’s integration with Hotmail, which took advantage of the huge popularity of the web-email service owned by the company to offer these millions of users the ability to instantly communicate.

Waging war with AOL

Version 1.0 of MSN Messenger Service comes with a spartan feature set including plain text messages and a basic contact list. Right out of the gate, rival AOL caught the attention as Microsoft had coded the MSN Messenger Service to be able to chat with AIM account holders. Needless to say, AOL was not thrilled.

As former AOL engineer Eric Bosco says, any messenger service connected to AIM’s network was required to provide a version type. Microsoft’s app identified as “MSN Messenger Version 1.0”, so Bosco and company adjusted AIM to disconnect each time this version tried to connect to its network.

Microsoft responded with an update that made the MSN Messenger Service identify itself as AIM. AOL blocked it again, and this back-and-forth battle reportedly continued 21 times before AOL threatened to inject malicious code into MSN’s network.

Microsoft backed up and instead ended up collaborating with another major player.

Forward and upward

Microsoft continued to expand its messaging client over the next many years, slowly but surely adding new UI elements and functionality such as the ability to customize chat windows and facilitate file transfers between users. As of early 2001, the MSN Messenger Service had more than 29 million unique users worldwide, enough to make it the most used instant messaging service in the world, according to Microsoft.

With the launch of Windows XP in 2001, Microsoft shortened the program name to MSN Messenger only. A few years later, the Redmond-based technology giant reached an interoperability agreement with Yahoo! which would allow users of their respective IM services to chat with each other. Together, it created the largest consumer IM community in the world with an estimated 275 million users.

From text-only conversations to a whole world of interactivity, Messenger eventually got features like smileys, video calls with webcam, sending short audio clips, playing real-time with your contacts, and the infamous “nudge” that would send a buzzing sound and shake the chat window to get another user’s attention.

With the eighth major version launch of the program, Microsoft renamed the app again, this time changing it to “Windows Live Messenger” to adapt to its broader Windows Live family of software and web services.

For a while, it seemed like Microsoft could not do anything wrong with its instant messaging application. But as we all know, the most obvious plans for mice and men often go awry.

The beginning of the end

With the last several revisions of Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft removed a lot of core functionality, platform bugs were obvious, and even security was questioned again and again.

For example, with version 9.0, the company removed several default status settings and eliminated the ability to adjust webcam settings during a video call. Windows Live Messenger 2009 RC saw Microsoft drop the custom login audio feature.

Things went from bad to worse in 2012, when Microsoft forced Windows Vista and Windows 7 users to upgrade from an older version of the app to a newer release, dropping support for Windows XP shortly thereafter. It was around the same time that Microsoft bought Skype.

The advent of social media and mobile devices could not be ignored either. These technologies enabled new ways for people to stay in touch with friends and family who did not involve a traditional computer.

Although Microsoft released Windows Live mobile versions for several major platforms, including iOS, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone (and even added integration with Facebook chat), there was a combination of factors that simply took Microsoft out of the IM game. Eventually, they found an exit strategy with Skype, but it did not go so well either …

Skype came along

In May 2011, Microsoft confirmed that it would buy the telecommunications app Skype for $ 8.5 billion, and in November of the following year, we were told that Messenger would be rolled into Skype.

With the integration, Messenger users would still be able to contact their friends via Skype, but it effectively set the wheels in motion to stop the standalone version of Windows Live Messenger. Skype was also well-liked and used on a global basis, but in Microsoft’s hands, the development of the program did not flourish.

As sure as the wind is blowing, Microsoft started phasing out Windows Live Messenger in April 2013. China was the only exception, but eventually the app was also pulled from this market on October 31, 2014.

If Microsoft could do things again, they probably would not miss out on Windows becoming a major player in the mobile OS arena. Similarly, MSN Messenger could have been today’s WhatsApp or Snapchat, but the lack of focus, the loss of trust from its huge user base and a poorly controlled transition to Skype landed Messenger in the technology cemetery.

MSN Messenger’s influence continues in Skype and many of today’s messaging platforms, but that’s a different story for another time.

TechSpots “What Ever Happened to …” series

The story of software apps and companies that at one time hit the mainstream and became widely used but is now gone. We cover the most prominent areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.

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