Is Verizon’s Oath making a mistake by shutting down the once-iconic AOL Instant Messaging service? Should Amazon have bought AIM and turned it into Alexa Instant Messaging? Read this week’s column to find out.
By Brad Berens
On December 15th, the AOL Instant Messenger service (AIM) will go offline, clicking off into a digital sunset. The news, when it broke on October 6, surprised me in two ways.
The first surprise: I hadn’t thought about AIM in a while. “That’s still around?”
That realization felt like the eyebrow lift I experience when I realize that older celebrities aren’t dead. Jerry Lee Lewis is only 82 and still performing? Olivia de Havilland — who starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn in 1938, before my parents were born — is still alive at 101?
AIM is joining Friendster, Myspace, and Ello on display at the Museum of Dead Social Technologies. Or, to paraphrase Center director Jeffrey Cole, AIM is a nightclub where none of the cool kids hang out anymore. But just a few short years ago — before the mobile revolution that the iPhone started in 2007 — AIM was the coolest club in town.
Unlike the other museum exhibits, AIM was live: conversations had tempo, cadence. A pause on AIM could be pregnant if your correspondent was thinking of the right reply, or it could just mean that she had become distracted or gone to the bathroom. In this way, AIM was more like today’s texting, where the three little dots that indicate your friend is typing a reply can glue your gaze to the smartphone screen in anticipation.
Although not a social networking service in the ways that Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are — with one-to-many microposts as the default unit of communication — looking at the different AIM screen names I adopted with each new job shows the successive online communities where I lived, trading notes constantly with colleagues as near as the next office over and as far as the other side of the country.
The second surprise: AIM isn’t worth anything?
It startled me to learn that AIM — a service that had connected millions of people to each other in real time, all the time — was so utterly valueless that Oath (the Verizon-owned, oddly-named fusion of AOL and Yahoo) was shutting it down rather than repurposing or selling it.
It seems counterintuitive: instant messaging is a robust part of American internet life. The Center’s latest Surveying the Digital Future report, for example, showed that 87 percent of Americans still use instant messaging, and 70 percent think that online messages in general are so urgent that they should get a reply in one day or less.
In 2019, we’ll still mostly be looking at our phones. By 2027, though, things will look quite different, with new digital players and new gadgets taking prominence and old ones starting to fade away. Today’s titan is tomorrow’s AOL Instant Messenger.
Messaging apps have never been more important than right now. Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 Billion in 2014. In China, Tencent’s WeChat (Weibo) has built a tremendous, multi-pronged business on top of messaging and is now worth $300 Billion or more. And as more and more people suffer from email fatigue, many businesses are turning to services like Slack or Microsoft Teams as email replacements: both are essentially AIM with better threading and document support.
At its height, according to one source, AIM had more than 100 million users.
Even though that number has now declined to the single digit millions, how is it possible that AIM is worthless in 2017?
Here’s an elegiac passage from the “AIM Memories” page on Tumblr (another Oath property), where Michael Albers, Oath’s VP of Communications Product, kinda/sorta explains the decision to turn off AIM forever:
If you were a 90’s kid, chances are there was a point in time when AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was a huge part of your life. You likely remember the CD, your first screenname, your carefully curated away messages, and how you organized your buddy lists. Right now you might be reminiscing about how you had to compete for time on the home computer in order to chat with friends outside of school. You might also remember how characters throughout pop culture from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Sex and the City” used AIM to help navigate their relationships. In the late 1990’s, the world had never seen anything like it. And it captivated all of us.
AIM tapped into new digital technologies and ignited a cultural shift, but the way in which we communicate with each other has profoundly changed. As a result we’ve made the decision that we will be discontinuing AIM effective December 15, 2017. We are more excited than ever to continue building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products for users around the world.
It’s not much of an explanation, is it?
Another possible explanation is that — in contrast to mobile-ready services like Facebook Messenger, WeChat, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple Messages — AIM never made the leap to mobile. But that doesn’t make sense either because AIM is now owned by Verizon, the largest mobile communications company in the United States.
Surely, if any company could help AIM emigrate to the smartphone it would Verizon!
What might have been…Alexa Instant Messenger
As I mulled over how AIM might have survived, I realized that there had been one logical acquirer for the moribund instant messaging service: Amazon.
Amazon has an extraordinary shopping profile of each of its customers, their wish lists, their purchasing histories, at the individual or household level. It also has a pretty good sense of some of each household’s friends, based on where gifts have been delivered over the years.
However, Amazon doesn’t have a sense of its customers’ friends and overlapping communities. It knows what I like; it knows what my friends like, but it doesn’t know who my friends are.
That’s where an acquisition of AIM might have been powerful. Fusing its customers’ Amazon profiles with their AIM screen names (no easy feat, I grant) would have enabled the everything store to tap into the word-of-mouth power of its customers’ friends at both the middle of the marketing funnel and at the bottom.
Moreover, creating this on-platform social shopping technology would be a powerful extension of Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa.
Mid-funnel, when customers were shopping and considering a purchase, the newly-renamed Alexa Instant Messenger (same initials, new A) could have made their online friends available for consultation.
For example, if I were looking at the new Michael Connelly novel on Amazon for a few minutes, the company might scour the purchase histories of my AIM friends to see who had already bought the book. “Brad,” Alexa might observe via text or voice, “I see you’re thinking about reading Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth; your friend Bennett is online right now and he already read it. Would you like to ask him about it?”
At the bottom of the funnel, once I’d made my purchase and moved on with my life, Amazon would have been able to use that purchase to inform or persuade my friends to make a similar purchase– as with Bennett and the book.
Let’s say that the previous week I had purchased a new pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and then a few days later my friend Georgina was shopping for a similar item. Alexa might ask her if she wants to ask me about the headphones, if both Georgina and I were on AIM at that moment.
Is this super-creepy? Yes.
It is plausible? Also yes.
It seems that what killed AIM was a lack of enthusiasm, imagination, and a corporate champion.
The moral of this story…
Back in 1996, Microsoft founder Bill Gates famously observed, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”
10 years ago, in 2007, everybody was paying rapt attention to the explosive, transformative arrival of the iPhone, but nobody would have thought that in 2009, AIM would be dead because of the iPhone — and it wasn’t. The decline and fall of AIM took longer, with its final death knell about to ring next month.
Looking around at the dominant digital players — Google, Facebook, Amazon — and the dominant technology, which is the smartphone, it’s easy to think that nothing is going to change anytime soon. And that’s probably true for the next two years, using the Bill Gates range.
In 2019, we’ll still mostly be looking at our phones. By 2027, though, things will look quite different, with new digital players and new gadgets taking prominence and old ones starting to fade away.
Today’s titan is tomorrow’s AOL Instant Messenger.
Brad Berens is the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer.
See all columns from the Center.
November 9, 2017