Sales & Marketing | 3 min read

For clues to messaging’s future, look no further than its past

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Like many great inventions, messaging wasn’t born out of necessity.

One of the earliest sightings of real-time computer messaging was through a time-sharing operating system built at MIT, the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), which ran on an IBM 7090:

The precursor of today's business messaging platforms ran on MIT's Compatible Time-Sharing System

CTSS was a primitive form of email that allowed up to 30 users to send messages asynchronously. In 1963, MIT researchers Tom Van Vleck and Noel Morris wrote a program for it, .SAVED, which created a user interface for people to see these messages on their own screen, and a scheduler that cut down message transmission time. And live chat was born.

Via email, Tom told me that at the time he and Noel weren’t quite sure what they’d stumbled upon:

“As to what problem it was trying to solve, this was never specified precisely. Noel and I did it because we could. We saw a way to build an interface, tried it out, and people liked it.”

Chatting was fun and addictive, and .SAVED spurred a thirst for faster, more efficient forms of communication. At that point in time, the only ways you could communicate with a person who wasn’t in the same room was landline or snail mail. But these tools were clumsy, slow, and simply not as fun or expressive as humans want to communicate.

“In the 1960s, if one system had a cute feature, other systems would build a similar one…or better,” Tom added. “People want to communicate, and what they communicate and the language they use to do so changes constantly. Chat and messaging are things people like so they try out various tools and settle on one they like.”

And as computing flourished in the latter part of the 20th century, the concept of real-time messaging took hold across industries. It spread in universities, governments and military, financial institutions, and after ICQ launched in 1999 it went mainstream to friends and family. Eventually, businesses began using it to chat with customers and website visitors.

When you understand that businesses are always chasing how humans communicate in real life, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that messaging is now the most popular way to talk to anyone online. And just as humans constantly evolve, so is messaging.

The evolution of messaging

At Intercom, we think a lot about business messaging, and about what the future looks, sounds and feels like. To create this future state, we had to think deeply about the origins of messaging and all the milestones it took for it to look the way it does today.

We put some of our research into a timeline, beautifully illustrated in our Brand Studio (click to view):

Intercom's Evolution of Messaging timeline


Quick note: the original name of this microsite was “The History of Messaging.” But as we put the timeline together we realized– we’re not studying a timeline of past events, or history, we’re studying a timeline of changes. Of transitions. Of why certain features, like Apple iMessage’s typing indicator, stuck and others, like ICQ’s numerical usernames, have not.

Some features, like Apple iMessage’s typing indicator, are now part of business messaging, while ICQ’s numerical usernames, are not

Something big is coming on April 24th

That begs the question: where will messaging go next? The more precocious among you might scroll through our microsite with narrowed eyes and pursed lips, wondering, “Hm…I wonder if Intercom is building…” And you might be right!

On April 24th, we’re announcing the next wave of business messaging. Look for clues to what that could look like in this microsite. You’ll also have an opportunity to sign up to be one of the first to hear our big announcement.