Joyride Through Cyberspace By Caroline Wright

ICQ, But AOL Seeks Me
from the Internet Gazette, July 1998

I’m outraged. On June 8, my very favorite Internet tool was sold by its creators to America Online for 400 million bucks. I have no confidence in its future.

What, you ask, is so great about ICQ? And why are a good number of my fellow 12 million registered ICQ users at least as upset as I am about AOL’s new toy?

All This, And It’s FREE (For Now)

High-quality and completely commercial free, ICQ (phonetic for "I seek you") was launched in late 1996 by Mirabilis, a company in Tel Aviv. It’s an incredibly user-friendly little program that sits on your desktop; it’s faster and somehow more intimate than e-mail, and smaller and somehow less spooky than IRC.

How does it work? Windows and Mac users can download the program at the Mirabilis Web site, at www.mirabilis.com. Upon installation, you register your nickname and receive unique identification number. By doing so, you register at a server which, in turn, is linked to a gigantic network of servers. When you log onto the Internet, ICQ automatically detects your connection, declares your presence to the Internet community, and shows you when a person in your customized list of friends has come online. You can message your friends instantly, start a chat with one or more of them, send files back and forth, transmit a URL instantly if you see a Web site that catches your eye, launch network games with your fellow Quake-heads, and more.

Because it runs in the background, ICQ takes minimal memory and bandwidth from other applications. You can join users’ groups of people with similar interests, from bondage to basketweaving. When you register, you have the option of entering personal information (interests, background, profession, and affiliation) with your nickname, so your old high school buddies can look for you in the ICQ White Pages. Mirabilis has also developed an open interface which independent programmers have used to design ICQ "plug-ins," including features for audio and video chat programs like CoolTalk, NetMeeting, and CUSeeMe.

The best thing about ICQ? It does all of this, and it’s FREE. Or at least, it was.

Why’d Ya Do It, Joe?

In March of this year, company director Joseph Vardi said that Mirabilis, a company without revenue, had deliberately chosen to not make money by selling ads or subscriptions. The company did not want to be distracted from its primary goal of “building value as a media property by attracting a large base of users.” Though Vardi spoke of possible acquisition by another media or Internet company looking to build traffic as a "portal," industry insiders were pessimistic about a buyer’s attraction to a company with no revenues.

It’s interesting to note that Mirabilis beat AOL with instant messaging by six months. AOL launched a similar product, a Web version of its popular “Buddy Lists” called AOL Instant Messenger, in the middle of 1997. Instant Messenger is distributed by Netscape. As of March 1998, Instant Messenger had a total of 18 million users, including Buddy List users on AOL's proprietary service, an AOL spokeswoman said.

But the Mirabilis product is incredibly popular. At any given time, more than 400,000 people are simultaneously logged on to ICQ, numbers that rival the viewership of CNN and MTV. The company’s growth is phenomenal: one million new subscribers every twenty-two days.

Some folks think that AOL bought Mirabilis because it was possibly getting too comfortable on AOL “turf”. But AOL shrugs and says that it believes this purchase will help it dramatically increase its presence on the Web. In a post-acquisition press conference, America Online cited three major reasons for its purchase of Mirabilis:

  • The ICQ software dashboard stays on a user's screen all the time, making it a prime target for advertising.
  • ICQ has one of the fastest growing communities on the Internet.
  • ICQ has a strong international reach, which will further accelerate AOL's global expansion.
The folks at Mirabilis put an open letter to outraged ICQ users on their Web site shortly after the sale. The letter says that America Online is “eager to maintain” ICQ’s “special spirit and culture”, and claims that ICQ, for the moment, will remain free. It explains the difficulties that the free service has experienced with its phenomenal growth rate - more T1 lines to lease, more hardware to purchase, and more staff to hire - and claims that America Online will help it through the boom.

As somebody who has long refused to have anything to do with AOL, I feel like I’ve been slimed.


Caroline Wright, of WRIGHT FOR YOU Word Services, is a freelance writer. A former resident of Hawaii, she now lives in rural South Carolina. Feel free to e-mail your comments to Caroline at cw@wrightforyou.com.