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The Most Popular Messaging Apps:

Their List and Short History

A space postman carrying the mail
Original illustration by A. Malyavina

Messengers have certainly come a long way becoming one of the most popular communication channels. Previously we discussed if they are ready to take the place of email, but today we want to focus on their history.

Let’s try to find out what messaging apps are, how they appeared, and what messengers people all over the world prefer the most.

What Instant Messengers Are and How They Function

A messenger app (or web app) is a system that allows people to instantly exchange information via the Internet. We can’t imagine our life without it.

Everything began in 1996 when ICQ AKA “I seek you” came out.

Messengers became a noticeable thing in the early 2010s when the smartphone market was shocked by the touchscreen bolt and mobile internet became available to nearly everyone.

Calling or Texting: What Messengers Are For

The initial purpose of instant messengers was to make communication affordable and remove the restrictions. Instant messengers care for your personal space: according to a Pew Research Center web survey of American adults conducted in July 2020, 8 out of 10 Americans don’t pick up cell phone calls from unknown numbers. Instant messengers let you send a short message that will surely reach another person.

As the need for data protection grows from year to year, users prefer instant messengers that provide end-to-end encryption. Telegram, for example, guarantees that all information comes to the server already encrypted.

Nowadays, instant messengers have a ton of functions, going far from the initial idea of just sending messages. Messengers let us send text messages, photos, audios, videos, documents, share our geolocation, create public channels and discussions. They also let businesses communicate with clients.

Instant Messengers Chronology

  • 1996: ICQ;
  • 1997: AIM
  • 1998: Tencent QQ;
  • 1999: MSN
  • 2003: Skype;
  • 2007: Imo.im;
  • 2009: WhatsApp;
  • 2010: Viber;
  • 2011: WeChat;
  • 2011: Line;
  • 2011: Facebook Messenger;
  • 2011: Snapchat;
  • 2011: iMessage
  • 2013: Telegram;
  • 2013: Hangouts Google;
  • 2013: Bip;
  • 2014: Signal;
  • 2015: Discord;

How the First Instant Messenger Appeared and What It Was Like

ICQ logo

ICQ (or I Seek You) is crowned the first messenger to grace the earth.

Launch date: 1996.
The number of users: 42 million people.

Created by a team of Israeli students in 1996, ICQ became the first application for instant message exchange. It all started as an app for friends and friends’ friends. Thanks to the positive rumor mill, ICQ became a worldwide phenomenon that still exists.

In the first two years, the number of ICQ users grew from several people to 9 million by the beginning of 1998.

Concurrently the American ISP AOL registered its own AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM) in 1997, which became popular in Northern America. It was integrated into the Netscape Navigator web browser and was available for every AOL client.

In 1998 AOL bought ICQ out for $407 mil. It allowed the company to expand its market share. Ads appeared on ICQ, while the users could create their own instant messenger/messenger app based on the ICQ protocol: Adium, jimmz, Miranda, and QIP. These required the same unique UIN number that ICQ did. In fact, the apps differed only in the graphic shells and ads usage.

ICQ lacked privacy: every time a user went online their whole friend list received a notification.

Now it sounds weird, but the ICQ privacy policy directly said that by typing literally anything in the messenger the user resigns their copyright and allows to republish it:

You agree that by posting any material or information anywhere on the ICQ Services and Information you surrender your copyright and any other proprietary right in the posted material or information. You further agree that ICQ Inc. is entitled to use at its own discretion any of the posted material or information in any manner it deems fit, included, but not limited to, publishing the material or distributing it.

In 2010, Digital Sky Technologies bought the service out for $187,000,000, and it became a part of the VK Company.

This is what the privacy policy looks like now:

ICQ privacy policy that says that the user understands and thereby authorizes that their Materials may be accessed, viewed, stored, or reproduced by ICQ NEW users or other visitors.

Popular Instant Messengers

WhatsApp

WhatsApp logo

Launch date: 2009
The number of users: 2 billion people.

WhatsApp is a free instant messenger that allows users to send text messages, images, video and audio files, e-documents, and apps online. It also supports audio and video calls.

WhatsApp has both mobile and desktop versions. Businesses can resort to a special app called WhatsApp Business, which lets entrepreneurs use the messenger to communicate with clients on behalf of the company.

WhatsApp is the most popular worldwide instant messenger, according to the statista.com research.

You can log into the app with your mobile phone number.

In 2014 WhatsApp was bought by Facebook.

The messenger can save a message in a separate “Favorite messages” folder. However, there is no way to delete a message without any trace, as the app will replace it with a “Message was deleted” note.

If you change your device, WhatsApp will save your chats and history, but only if you choose to do so. You can also archive the user’s whole messaging history and send it via email.

After a message is sent its status can be sent, delivered, and read.

You can’t log into the app on two mobile devices simultaneously with the same account. When you do so on the second device, the app will show you the message “Your account is already being used on another device” and the starting “Welcome to WhatsApp” screen.

Viber

Viber logo

Launch date: December 2, 2010.
The number of users: 1,1 billion people

Viber allows you to send messages, make video and audio VoIP calls, create group chats and public channels. The app is free, though if you want to call someone who doesn’t have it installed, you will need to top up your balance.

You can only sign up via your mobile phone number.

The main feature of the group chats here is that the whole messaging history will be available to every user, no matter when they joined the chat.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger logo

Launch date: August 9, 2011.
The number of users: 1,3 billion people.

This instant messenger is available to Facebook users only as you will need an account to use it.

In 2020, Facebook merged Instagram and Messenger chats: you can toggle the integration of Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger.

Telegram

Telegram logo

Launch date: August 14, 2013.
The number of users: 500 million people.

An instant messenger created by Pavel Durov, the founder of a Russian social network “VKontakte”.

This one is especially popular with gen Z, millennials, and those who prize privacy. It is perfect for keeping up with work chats as it has: public channels, private, and group chats.

Telegram allows sending messages, making audio and video calls, recording instant video messages, creating informational channels and groups, livestreaming for an infinite number of users, and adding your sticker packs.

On August 14, 2013, the first version of the app appeared on the App Store, and in September 2013, the first test version for the Android platform was released. The official web version and the final version of the Android app were released in October 2013.

Here are some features of the messenger. You can:

  1. Delete messages for all users, and there will be no notifications that they were deleted.
  2. Share your real-time location. If several people in one chat activate this function, their geolocations will synchronize and update in real-time on one map.
  3. Quickly switch between channels. If you look through all messages in a channel, the app will show you the icon of the next channel and suggest you go and read new messages there.
  4. Livestream. Any user can create their channel and video livestream for a limitless amount of users. Any participant can send the owner a request and join the stream as a speaker.
  5. Forward messages and hide the sender’s name. In this case, a recipient will get an original message or file without the “forwarded message” note.
  6. Send silent messages. If you hold the send button and chose the “send without sound” option, the other person will get a silent notification.

Discord

Discord logo

Launch date: May 13, 2015.
The number of users: 300 million people.

Discord became popular thanks to the gaming community: most Twitch streamers have their own Discord server.

Discord status can be synchronized with other apps and games and display your status in real-time. For example, it can show that you’re listening to some tunes on Spotify or playing some Dota 2 or even using Figma.

Users can communicate both in private messages and in group chats which are called servers here. Servers often resemble multilevel constructions as the app’s functionality allows creating voice and text chat rooms: general, private, or read-only.

You can also add your own stickers available to the server members only. Discord also supports chat-bots: you can set them to send the info on your new email list subscribers to a separate channel. Or these bots can send the latest news on any topic.

In 2021, threads were introduced: they structure information and let you “clean up” crowded general chat rooms.

You can also boost your server, though only Discord Nitro users can do it.

Discord allows setting up workflow as well: at EmailSoldiers, we use the messenger for corporate communication. It seems like we’re doing well:

The chatroom of the global department in Discord

Skype

Skype logo

Launch date: 2003.
The number of users: 4 billion people.

The most famous free app for online video calls that’s been around for a while now. There’s a service called SkypeOut, that allows you to make calls to a fixed or mobile phone. It’s also possible to get your own phone number via the SkypeIn service.

In 2011, Microsoft bought Skype.

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts logo

Launch date: May 15, 2013.
The number of users: no data.

It is a free app by Google that allows conducting group calls and chats. You can log in with your Google account only.

It replaced the Google Talk app launched in 2006. The contacts list and chats history were automatically transferred to Google Hangouts.

Up to 150 people can participate in a group chat. You can host webinars in Hangouts with one speaker only. The audience can ask questions and share feedback in the online chat. By topping up your balance, you can call mobile and landline phones.

Tencent QQ

Tencent QQ logo

Launch date: 1999.
The number of users: 844 million people.

This instant messenger is popular in China. It is owned by the Tencent company. It was initially called OICQ after the first instant messaging client ICQ.

Besides sending messages, QQ also allows listening to music, making purchases, watching movies, and livestreaming.

WeChat

WeChat logo

Launch date: January 2011.
The number of users: 1,2 billion people.

WeChat was developed in China and is popular in Asia. It is also a part of Tencent. WeChat allows money transactions via an inner payment processor WeChat Pay.

Chinese users have remarkably more features: for example, they can use the WeChat account instead of their passport when traveling from Mainland China to Makao and Hong Kong. It is also available in Guangzhou. In 2020, when the first COVID-19 wave came, a digital pass was introduced in WeChat. It displayed a user’s current health code.

Compared to other Chinese analogs, for example, QQ, WeChat has relatively few ads: these are shown twice a day.

The app also contains “mini-programs”: apps that can help book a doctor’s appointment, order a taxi, or products from various shops.

Snapchat

Snapchat logo

Launch date: 2011.
The number of users: 293 million people.

An app for photo and video content exchange that is popular in the US. The main feature here is that the content is available for a limited time only and then disappears.

When you send a pic to a user, you can choose the amount of time it will be available for: for example, 1–5–10 seconds. If the user decides to take a screenshot of your snap, the app will notify you about it. You can add filters, stickers, draw something on a pic, or use masks for selfies.

iMessage

iMessage logo

Launch date: 2011.
The number of users: 1,65 billion people.

An instant messenger that is integrated into SMS. It is available for Apple users only. You can activate it using your phone number or email from your Apple ID account. The service is available only with the use of the Internet, in another case, the device will suggest you send the message as an SMS. Messages are saved in the iCloud storage and synchronized on all of your Apple devices.

A screenshot of apps that are automatically in the iMessage app drawer: AppStore, Photos, Music, Digital Touch, images search, ApplePay, Memoji, Memoji Stickers
Apps that are automatically added to the iMessage app drawer

Line

Line logo

Launch date: 2011.
The number of users: 250 million people.

This Japanese messenger is used for text messages and calls. It allows creating group calls for up to 200 users. Popular in the USA and UK.

Signal

Launch date: July 29, 2014.
The number of users: 500 million people.

You will need a mobile phone number to log in and you can log in from only one device at a time. You will also need to install the app on your phone even if you want to use it on your computer.

Signal’s policy does not presuppose storing the user data on their servers. After you log into your account on a new device, the whole message story deletes automatically. The app developers specify that it is done for the sake of data security.

If you want to cover the face of a person before sending a photo you can use the blurring feature. Signal also has no public channels and supports private messages only.

Fun fact: in January 2021, WhatsApp changed its privacy policy and notified its users that their data will go straight to Facebook. Elon Musk went to Twitter to recommend switching to Signal causing investors to buy the company stocks. However, they mistook it for Signal Advance, a company with a rather similar name, and raised its stock value by 1100%.

Bip

Bip logo

Launch date: 2013.
The number of users: 65 million people.

A Turkish instant messenger by a mobile provider Turkcell.

With the help of this app, you can make calls, exchange messages, play games, and organize group video calls for up to 15 people in HD quality.

The app has automatic text translation, which allows the users speaking different languages to communicate without additional translation services.

Imo.im

imo logo

Launch date: 2007.
The number of users: no official data.

It is an American app for voice and video calls and instant messages exchange.

Until 2014, the users could log into other messengers, like Skype and ICQ. In 2014 the developers removed this feature.

How Instant Messengers Can Help Your Business

With the help of instant messengers you can:

  • communicate with the clients on behalf of the company via a chat-bot;
  • notify buyers about the changes in the order status;
  • use it as the company’s official channel: capture leads, gather the subscribers database, and tell about new promos and company news with the help of push notifications;
  • run targeted ads;
  • sell products and services.

You can run native advertising in Viber and Facebook Messenger: their audience is quite responsive to this type of content.

Telegram is suitable for commercial advertising. You can promote your services with the help of promo posts on specific channels.

Telegram and Viber also allow you to add custom stickers for your company.

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We are EmailSoldiers — full-service email marketing agency. Here we share our experience and useful guides on digital marketing. Contact us: https://emailsoldiers.com

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Anna Senkina

Anna Senkina

SMM-manager at EmailSoldiers. Read our marketing blog: https://clc.to/emailsoldiers-blog

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