Instant messaging was once tipped to replace e-mail, but recent figures suggest that it has lost ground sharply. Why?

OMG. Instant messaging (IM), once the mainstay of teenage gossips, techie know-it-alls and office time-wasters everywhere, looks as though it is in trouble.

Just a few years ago, it was meant to be the future.

More immediate than e-mail, less fiddly than texting, sending an IM was widely expected by many technology pundits to become our preferred mode of online communication, whether socially or in the office – or socially in the office, for that matter.

But how times change.

In 2007, 14% of Britons’ online time was spent on IM, according to the UK Online Measurement company – but that has fallen to just 5%, the firm says, basing its findings on the habits of a panel of 40,000 computer users.

The study was released shortly after AOL sold its ICQ instant messaging service $187.5m (£124m) – less than half what the company paid for it in 1998.

And in September 2009, a survey of internet use by the New York-based Online Publishers Association found that the amount of time spent by surfers on traditional communications tools, including IM and e-mail, had declined by 8% since 2003.

It is a far cry from the early days of the decade when this very website anticipated that IM would overtake e-mail by 2004 [see internet links].

Cast your mind back to the early noughties – a time when dial-up was still widespread and the Apple G3s looked futuristic – and it becomes easier to recall why IM looked like it was about to conquer the world.

It was, after all, instant. It let users see if their friends and contacts were online and, if so, communicate with them in real time.

Tech-savvy office staff could chase up a query and expect an answer straight away, without having to pick up the phone. Teenagers in their bedrooms could exchange schoolyard tittle-tattle without the encumbrance of having to press "refresh" on the browser screen to their web-based e-mail account.

It also offered workers a handy means of circumventing their employers’ e-mail usage policies.

Chat’s all folks

Chris Green, a technology journalist turned industry analyst, recalls the heady days of IM’s ascendency.

"That was the way it was going," he remembers. "E-mail had peaked. And IM offered additional value over e-mail."

There were niggles, however. Initially, IM systems were "proprietary" and non-compatible, so those using Microsoft’s MSN Messenger were unable to reach friends on Aim, ICQ, or Yahoo! Messenger.

The firms would subsequently allow cross-pollenation of their systems, but, says Mr Green, the delay in "finding something that was ubiquitous across all platforms" – in the same way that sending an e-mail from a Yahoo! to a Hotmail account was seamless – cost the format dearly.

Google Talk

Into the vacuum stepped social networking sites.

Paul Armstrong, director of social media with the PR agency Kindred, believes that the rise of the likes of Facebook and Twitter – which allow users to do much more than just send messages – simply had more to offer.

"With instant messaging you have to stay at your computer," he says. "With social networking, you can use your phone’s web browser or SMS.

"Rather than shifting away from instant messaging, people are using the functions of instant messaging on different platforms."

Even though Facebook’s own instant messaging system – not covered in the UK Online Measurement habits – was widely-regarded as inferior to those provided by the established IM networks, users were tied into a one-stop shop for sharing thoughts, photos, and being re-introduced to long-forgotten former colleagues and classmates.

Return to sender

The effect on IM, says Chris Green, has been catastrophic.

Windows Live Messenger – formerly MSN Messenger – was no longer "bundled" with Vista and Windows 7, becoming instead an optional extra, he says. Google may be bullish about Google Talk, the search engine’s attempt to blend IM with e-mail, insisting that millions of its users "love the convenience and simplicity" of the service.

But Mr Green says its modest success represents a "flop" when put alongside the company’s dominance elsewhere on the web.

"People have moved on," he says. "The novelty value has worn off. If you look at teenagers today, they are using Twitter on their mobiles."

But has IM died out altogether? The figures would suggest that although its market share has fallen, its raw numbers have not.

California-based IT research firm The Radicati Group estimates that there are 2.4 billion IM accounts worldwide, rising to 3.5 billion by 2014.

Plenty of browers, it seems, still value the speed and simplicity of IM.

Technology journalist and BBC Click presenter LJ Rich notes that, in many countries where internet use is censored, BlackBerry Messenger is used to bypass state-sponsored snoops.

And she believes that the principles of IM survive – it is just that sites such as Facebook and Twitter let us talk to a wider audience via a wider range of platforms, including mobiles.

"With social networks, we’ve gone from instant messaging to something that’s more like conference calls," she says.

Maybe IM will have the last laugh after all. Or, rather, the last LOL.

Add your comments on this story, Click here to add comments..

I have been seeing this trend over the couple of years; with the growth of social networking (especially Facebook), people want to show off to all their hundreds of friends rather than have conversations with just one or a few people at a time. I still see IM as much easier, more reliable and faster but most people I know don’t even log into IM anymore.Dan Cottam, London, UK

Twitter is a novelty, a prime example of one. IM isn’t a novelty, it’s a basic tool of communication. It isn’t going anywhere.Steve Turner, Marlborough

I find social networks a pointless soul-sapping waste of time and still use IM to keep in touch with friends and family as it’s simple and (as the name suggests), instant.KH, Leicester

There’s something that’s been left out of this analysis, and that’s that corporate decisions to block IM in the workplace has effectively killed this method of communication. A shame, seeing as more progressive employers harness it to encourage global teamworking with incredible effect.Cath, Guildford, Surrey

Facebook has an IM program built into it’s webpage. That is the single reason IM has died, nothing else. Back in the days when Myspace was the dominant social network, people still used MSN and Yahoo.Adam Smith, Liverpool

Email, social networking and IM all have their place. They don’t compete with each other, they complement each other.Mike Cardwell, Nottingham, United Kingdom

This article is from the BBC News website. © British Broadcasting Corporation, The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

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