Bringing Sexy Back: How 90’s Nostalgia Influenced a Modern Day Mobile App

As a tech entrepreneur constantly struggling to stay current (I start my mornings with a flood of Google Alerts and a rough scan of at least 20 new startups), I wistfully look back at simpler times when we were all exposed to some of the same things. You know the classics — Saved By The Bell, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Ace of Base, AOL dial-up,, Napster, etc.

Saved By The Bell reunion on Jimmy Fallon—Mr. Belding, giant cell phones, freeze frame time outs… they were all there!

It’s helpful that older millennials and young Gen X share this nostalgia, as I often reference it when describing the app I’m working on.

I’ll say, “Hey did you ever use AIM growing up? Okay great. Prevoo is a lot like that — only better, and for your mobile device.”

Wait, what? How is version 1.0 of desktop instant messaging from 20 years ago relevant today? Read on.

Before the Messaging and Mobile Explosion

A Mashable article outlining the rise and fall of AIM (an excellent read, by the way) summed it up nicely, “The 1990s belonged to America Online.” Yup, in the 90’s many of us got our start online via AOL’s dial-up CDs, and started using “the” instant messenger of that era — AOL Instant Messenger, also known as AIM. Yahoo Messenger and MSN were also around, but AIM was the most widely used in my peer group.

High five if this looks familiar!

This was before mobile, so AIM software was installed on your desktop and contacts were organized into a “Buddy List”. Here’s the really brilliant part that we then took for granted — AIM gave us a comprehensive view of our buddies’ reachability.

People who were actively using their desktop — regardless of what window or program — appeared in black, those who had signed out appeared italicized and were grouped in an “Offline” bucket, and those who were signed in but not using their computer appeared in gray. You could hover over their screen name to know how long they had been idle or away, and get a pretty good idea of whether they were likely to still be around and see your note. Instant messaging gave us the ability to have conversations online, and as common sense would dictate, you’d rarely start a conversation with someone who was idle or offline; messaging those folks was like leaving voicemail.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the movie “You’ve Got Mail”, which featured AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM)

Fast-forward to today. Mobile replaced desktop, and a combination of text and OTT messaging replaced instant messaging. Thousands of different mobile messaging apps aspire to help us get in touch, but none give us the sense of reachability that AIM once did. (Microsoft Lync is one of few such desktop-only programs and only serves large enterprise organizations.)

In the modern world, mobile rules

Every dominant mobile messaging app — Google Hangouts, Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, and more — works in siloes. You can see when someone is “online” or “active” in that particular app, but not if they’re reachable as a whole. It’s almost as if we’ve taken a step backward. We’re left trying to piece-meal reachability from scattered clues in different apps, crossing fingers and sending our messages into the abyss, and settling for lags in reply. Sometimes our conversations are instant and seamless. Other times not so much.

One Platform to Rule Them All

Still with me? Along the way to mobile glory, we lost an important and useful piece of intelligence — reachability.

So my team built a solution for just that. Prevoo shows you whether or not you can reach someone, based on how they are using their smartphone.

Remember when I called it “a lot like AIM — but better”? It’s better because we’ve added a few dimensions to reachability that make sense for mobile. In addition to knowing when contacts are around and away, the app also shows when they are on another call, don’t have reception, or out of battery. Just like you wouldn’t normally instant message someone on AIM who was idle or offline, chances are you wouldn’t text or message someone who wasn’t by their phone, on a call, or whose battery had died. Not if you wanted to have a conversation or get a quick response, anyway.

Here we see that Ethan has been Away for 3 hours. Chances are that he’s asleep and won’t respond right away.

A secondary feature we’re excited about allows users to see what messaging apps they have in common with each contact, and initiate conversations from within the app. Unlike AIM, Prevoo isn’t a messaging platform in itself; there are already a ton of other apps that do a great job with that piece. We help users identify and access those platforms more quickly.

Lets say I see your status is ‘Around’ and we both have WhatsApp installed. I can tap on your name, then on the WhatsApp icon from our messaging tray, and voila — start a conversation within seconds. This saves me the additional time and effort of getting in and out of different apps. After all, live reachability changes in seconds and time is of the essence.

What About Privacy?

Two questions I often get are “What if people start tracking me?” and “What if I text someone when they are ‘Around’ and they don’t respond, or vice versa?”

Okay, breathe. It’s not that serious. If you’re genuinely worried about someone tracking you, don’t add that person. Though, I’d venture to guess that most people don’t have that kind of time or interest. Now that I’ve been using the beta version of the app with friends, family, and colleagues for a few months, I can tell you firsthand that reachability information is not all that exciting to track. There’s an additional option for location sharing for convenience and coordination, but it can be turned on and off easily.

As for not getting instant responses, even when the other person is ‘Around’ — Yeah, I get that it seems daunting now, but in practice it’s just about managing expectations. Because of how multi-functional our devices are, sometimes we’re in the middle of other things and aren’t able to get back right away. It really works both ways; sometimes you’re busy, and other times the person you’re trying to get in touch with is. Again, if you’re worried about an interaction with someone who would be massively offended by that idea, chances are they aren’t a good person to add or invite.

Or, perhaps it’s just about trying it out for a few days. After the initial hump of anxiety, access to reachability information is normalized, and it doesn’t feel like such a big deal any more. I’ve also found that the more contacts you’re using the app with, the more your perspective changes. There is anonymity in numbers.

Are we really as private as we think we are?

It’s interesting that this question pops up as much as it does now, as we never gave a second thought to using AIM to share our desktop reachability. But 20 years later, we’re challenged with all kinds of privacy and security issues, and it’s understandable that these topics are top of mind.

But Really, It’s About Relationships (for me anyway)

Having this additional kernel of intelligence at your fingertips has a great deal of benefits — convenience, efficiency, and productivity, to name a few. But beyond these practical applications, the one that hits home most for me is also the hardest to frame into a traditional use case.
Part of why I’m so nostalgic when I think of AIM is that it shaped some of my closest friendships in high school and college. Seeing someone “within reach” felt equivalent to someone “being there” for you — to talk, help out, or cheer you up when you were having a bad day.

Conversations that started for no other reason than the other person being online and reachable at the same time turned into deep, meaningful relationships that lasted more than a decade.

One of my best friends and I often laugh about a somewhat random encounter we had in the early 2000’s, long before we became as close as we are today. I remember having a really bad day and feeling down, when I saw him online on AIM. I messaged him to see if he would meet up with me, to which he immediately replied and agreed. We met that evening but I didn’t want to talk about what was on my mind. All I needed was a friend to “be there” for me. I’m grateful that he was — and now also grateful to AIM for being the platform that facilitated our interaction, which later had a domino effect on our relationship.

(From our Demo Video) This is what the same reach out over text may look like today. PS: Can you spot the Adele lyrics?

Join Us on Our Journey

After almost a year of building, piloting, and tweaking Prevoo, we’re finally ready to take it out for a spin. As of this week, Prevoo is available for download in both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Here’s a 1-minute demo that illustrates what the app looks like with a few quick examples:

Early user feedback is incredibly valuable and I’d love to hear from you. You can send me a note directly: arti(at)prevooapp(dot)com.

Prevoo App Demo Video