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Long before people were tethered to smartphones and in constant communication with everyone all the time, AOL Instant Messenger was really the only way to chat with your friends online.

In many ways, the pioneering chat app is responsible for training an entire generation of middle and high schoolers how to navigate the many pitfalls of Internet back-and-forth.

After launching in 1997, AIM quickly became the leading chat app in North America, and seemingly every teenager with access to a computer used it.

Besides letting you chat, joke, and ROFL with friends, it also introduced many to the idea of crafting a digital identity.

From meticulously wording away messages and statuses, to fleshing out your "Buddy Info" section with the sort of angsty lyrics only a 15-year-old emo teen could appreciate, it set the bar for how people went on to use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Slack, text messaging, and every other chat-adjacent app that launched since.

However, the chat app's luster began fading about a decade ago once social networks and smartphones took over, and its active user base rapidly declined.

And while the apps that have taken its place are objectively better and more useful, this goodbye is still a bittersweet one.

When we think about the spectacular collapses of once untouchable Internet properties, companies like My Space and come to mind.The rise and fall of AOL Instant Messenger rivals them all.Once the dominant force in digital messaging and a source of innovations other companies spun off into billions of dollars of businesses, AIM is now mostly dormant.Mashable sat down with three of the early engineers of the program to learn about its origins, why AOL never quite embraced the concept of a free messaging service, getting hacked by Microsoft and the features that never quite made it to users. It had risen above competitors in Prodigy and Compu Serve to become the dominant Internet service provider for American households.Millions of subscribers paid AOL monthly for the ability to sign online. The "You've got mail" notification became the sound Americans associated with their first email accounts, as well as a movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.Barry Appelman, Eric Bosco and Jerry Harris worked at AOL in the 1990s and early 2000s as engineers on AOL Instant Messenger, known commonly as AIM. Appelman and Bosco programmed in the Unix operating system.Harris had been a programmer at a small web browser company purchased by AOL.But together with a group of other engineers they helped take AIM from inception to dominance, then watched it fall into dormancy, unable to convince AOL management that free was the future.Sitting with them and talking about the program, they exude pride for what they built and how it impacted the Internet. " During our conversation, the term "innovator's dilemma" is thrown around a few times.Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen coined the term, which is the title of his renowned book. The app, which Facebook bought for billion, is essentially what they worked on in the mid 90s — messaging over the Internet.The concept is simple — companies concerned with its current products, profits and customers often fail to recognize and adapt to change even from within. AOL is still pivoting away from its days as an ISP.

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