Desperately seeking ICQ? It may shut down, but Nina could resurrect it

Multiple folks are working on FOSS servers for classic messaging apps

Multiple independent efforts are underway to save ICQ from extinction… as well as MSN, AIM, Yahoo! and more.

The recent news that ICQ is shutting down seems to have surprised a lot of people who didn't realize that it was still going. AOL sold the service to Digital Sky Technologies back in 2010, and the Reg FOSS desk – once known to his friends as 73187508 – verified that old accounts still worked.

All is not quite lost, however. Most of the 1990s instant messenger protocols have been open for decades, whether officially or not. AOL interconnected its two services by 2002, and Apple's original messenging app iChat for the then-new Mac OS X used the AOL AIM protocol.

The OSCAR protocol is quite well-documented even thought it remains officially proprietary. Those pesky, disrespectful Linux programmers reverse-engineered it long ago to create the GAIM client, already available 18 years ago.

Now, as the servers shut down – AOL closed the AIM service in 2017 – other intrepid coders are using the descriptions to implement servers for these disappearing services. For example, we know of two separate efforts to implement an OSCAR server for Linux: the AIM OSCAR server and the Retro AIM Server.

More ambitious is a project called NINA which is hoping to open a whole range of them: AOL, MSN, Yahoo! and ICQ, among others. It's backed by a company called Level Leap, which describes itself as a medical software company specializing in the cloud.

Its MSN Messenger server, Escargot, opened up in 2021 – although by way of full disclosure, this vulture has so far failed to get any client to connect to it. Nina's ICQ and AIM service is currently in beta, and only paying supporters can access it at the moment. The company has shared screenshots showing clients connecting on its Twitter X account.

Tony from Level Leap told us:

Right now we're in the midst of getting the remainder of ICQ done including any API endpoints that (or VK) added so that we can complete our ICQ support to include even the newest versions, though currently we support ICQ 2000 through ICQ 8, which is more than anyone else does right now.

The AOL service is up and only available to alpha-level supporters. AIM and ICQ as well are also available only for gamma tier supporters. Essentially it follows the Greek alphabet alpha, beta, gamma, then free for all, and the main reasons we do this is so that we can both limit the amount of people jumping on at once and also help fund hosting of the projects.

Nina offers its own specially patched versions of existing clients, but there are also custom connectors being developed for FOSS clients such as Pidgin, the modern cross-platform descendant of GAIM. As we've said earlier, Pidgin is very much alive and can talk to Discord, Matrix, Mattermost,, Slack, Telegram, and most other chat services.

In our cynical view, a communications service isn't really cross-platform unless it has a documented protocol and a choice of true, native clients. A Javascript web app running in Electron doesn't count – which disqualifies Slack for a start. We were thus not in the least surprised when the company changed its terms so that it could sell its logs to use as LLM training data.

Open protocols and open native client apps could, potentially, lead to a resurgence in these 20th century chat systems. There's an outside chance that this sort of technology could yet thrive in the form of FOSS, just as Unix itself did… as compared to the technological stagnation that results from companies vying to outdo one another with proprietary produced. ®

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