A Blast From the Past: ICQ and AoLOL!

Yesterday, at the Israel Conference here in L.A., I met, in person, for the first time, someone that I’ve been communicating with electronically for about 15 years. Funny when that happens.

I first met Yair Goldfinger when he was working on ICQ, a company that he co-founded back in 1996 that invented instant messaging as we now know it. I was 16 years old, a Junior in high school, when I was introduced to the ICQ team. These were four young Israeli guys working on something that turned out to be really, really big. In a way, ICQ is symbolic of kicking-off the dotcom boom: the prototypical startup that exited really, really big (sold to AOL for $400M in 1998).

The ICQ guys asked me to give them some feedback on their web site, which, at the time, was littered with broken English. I was rather helpful in that A) I can speak Hebrew fluently and I connected well with the team and B) English is my native language, so I could help them get things into decent shape.

I was really intrigued by their product, especially considering that I had built something somewhat similar (but vastly simpler, without their bigger vision): an add-on for AOL 2.5 that, among other things, allowed you to see if your friends were online. And, if they were, you could send them instant messages.

I called the product AoLOL!. It was my very-first piece of commercial software. I labored over it for months and months until my cousin, who had some experience in the world of computers, demanded that I release it. I was new to software development, and by the time that I had built an adequate number of features, I learned so much about how to improve my work that I couldn’t bear to release the software as-is. It was never good enough! (typical problem among software developers).

The product actually did quite well (considering the circumstances) and sold hundreds of copies (shareware, $14.95 per copy). It was an incredible feeling to get checks in the mail from complete strangers!

At one point, the ICQ guys asked me if I’d be interested in joining them – they were in the Bay Area at the time – but I had to decline (I was still in high school!). They also offered me UIN #007 (ICQ didn’t have usernames, they assigned numbers to each user), and I I declined (don’t ask me why). My UIN is 104007 (four thousand and seventh person to sign up – they started at 100,000).

Later, AOL launched the “buddy list,” and I let the ICQ team “borrow” my AOL account (“yar1g”) to check it out, see how it works, etc.

Fun to look back. Everything was so exciting and new.