If you were online at the turn of the millennium, there’s a good chance you’re an ex-user of ICQ.

At the messenger’s peak around 2001, it had 100 million users. Now, on it’s 20th birthday, it’s down to 11 million. But Mail.ru Group – Russia’s largest Internet company –  thinks it can change that.

When it bought ICQ from AOL in 2010, it was still the number one messaging app in Russia. However, it was clear that ICQ was failing to adapt to mobile and was quickly losing market share to fast rising apps, said Igor Yermakov, head of instant messaging at Mail.ru. Competitors that overtook it included Skype (bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion in 2011), WhatsApp (bought by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014) and Viber (bought by Rakuten for $900 million in 2014).

ICQ Live Chats
The new ICQ has little resemblance to the original. Built for mobile, it includes video and voice calls, Snapchat-like masks and stickers, as well as public and private chatrooms called “Live Chats.”


ICQ’s total makeover

ICQ’s  new owners decided to start from scratch. While Mail.ru kept the flower logo and “uh –oh” sound, not much else is recognizable from the popular desktop client of the early 2000s. Both the mobile and desktop versions  of ICQ now sport a clean, minimalist design, voice and video calls, and Snapchat-like masks and effects.

The app has come a long way since the first version was created by four Israeli high school students in November 1996. The original version could only exchange text messages, and later features were added such as encryption and chat rooms. In mid-1998, AOL acquired it for $407 million near the height of its popularity, but later made little progress on adapting the messenger to mobile. Mail.ru bought it for just for $188 million in 2010, with intentions to reverse its decline despite intense competition.

ICQ photo filters
ICQ’s built-in photo editor includes filters to transform photos into works of art. Image: Mail.ru


Mobile messaging: a crowded market

“Over the last six years, messaging has been a very competitive field,” Yermakov of Mail.ru said. “You look at any app store and in the top 10 there are always at least three different messengers. I think a new one comes out every week.”

But he said, on the other hand, it’s not easy to create a fully-featured messenger that can compete with the biggest players. Now it’s standard for every messenger to handle all kinds of multimedia: text messaging, video calls, voice calls, and all with end-to-end encryption.

Mail.ru owns several of Russia’s most popular social media networks, email services, e-commerce portals, and other web services, and has annual revenue of more than 500 million euros, putting it in a good position to overcome the high barriers to entry. While ICQ’s main functionality is famously open source, its most differentiating features, such as its VoIP technology, are under wraps.

Mail.ru has invested significantly in ICQ to make it one of the most feature-rich messengers on the market. For example, its built-in photo editor lets users put filters on their images and turn them into works of art before sharing in chats or private messages.

ICQ 2001b, released in 2001.
How it used to look. ICQ version 2001b, released in 2001. Image: Courtesy of Mail.ru


Shaking an old-fashioned image

But, like any new messenger, it’s a big challenge to get people to try something new when their friends and family are on another platform, said Yermakov, who acknowledged that Mail.ru was late to the game. He says the company is currently focused on reclaiming ICQ’s userbase in Russia, but has also seen spurts of new users in markets like Morocco and Brazil.

Mail.ru is hoping that one throwback feature will make their app less reliant on users’ existing networks: chat rooms. ICQ’s “Live Chats” allow users to interact with new people in their city, or around the world and chat on just about any topic. Now with geolocalization and adjustable privacy settings, which debuted in September, it’s made chatting online with random strangers a little less creepy than in the early days of the Internet.

Mail.ru hopes to benefit from ICQ’s established brand recognition. But can the brand make it another 20 years?

“For us the main problem is that people still think of ICQ as something old-fashioned,” Yermakov said. “We have to change this perception.”