The history of live chat software

Surprisingly, the history of live chat software dates back to the 1970s. That’s two decades before the invention of the World Wide Web.

From its conception almost fifty years ago, live chat has risen and risen to the point of ubiquity. Real-time digital chat is now everywhere, infused in the way we communicate and transact business.

But today’s mainstream adoption started with humble roots. The chat phenomenon all began with a university side-project. So, from its earliest chat room format to contemporary AI chatbots, here’s the history of live chat software.


1970s – PLATO and the creation of Talkomatic

The earliest form of live chat software evolved around the PLATO system at the University of Illinois. One of its functions included a method of reporting bugs known as ‘notes’. It comprised of an open text document that anyone could edit and add comments to.

In 1973, Doug Brown and David Woolley — two PLATO system programmers — expanded on this idea. Doug came up with the idea of a program that would allow group chats. In other words, a chat room. He wrote a simple, one-room prototype and named it ‘Talkomatic’. David Woolley then worked with Doug to expand Talkomatic.

Talkomatic chats could host up to five people, and the chats happened in real-time. That is, you could watch your fellow chatters type their messages, letter-by-letter. This marked the birth of real-time chat.


Term-talk

Talkomatic was so popular that it inspired the addition of an official chat function to the PLATO system. This was known as Term-talk.

Users could access Term-talk from anywhere on the PLATO system, by pressing the ‘TERM’ key and typing ‘talk’. (Much in the same way as pressing your chat button from any page of a website today.)

Unlike chatroom-esque Talkomatic, Term-talk conversations happened between only two people. The program allowed you to get in touch with a specific person on the PLATO system, and you could continue your activity while chatting. Later, the addition of a ‘monitoring’ feature allowed chatters using Term-talk to share their screen and ask for help.

So, this idea of one-on-one instant chat made Term-Talk the earliest form of live chat software as we would recognise it today. As such, it marks the true beginning of the history of live chat software. 


1980s – CB Simulator

Over the 1980s, chat platforms — mostly in the form of chatrooms — started to grow. Of note in the history of live chat software, though, the 80s saw a key development.

In February of 1980, CompuServe released CB Simulator. This was the first dedicated chat service for wider public use – ever.

At the time, the concepts of multi-user chat and instant messaging were alien. But people did know of citizens band (CB) radio. This, then, is where CompuServe’s chat program got its name.

By using the ‘CB’ label, CB Simulator helped users grasp the concepts at play with its service. That is, the familiar paradigm of CB radio helped introduce the concepts of multi-user chat and instant messaging.

In other words, CB Simulator helped introduce the public to real-time chat.


1990s – Enter internet

At the turn of the decade, between 1989 and 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. This changed life as we knew it. More specifically, it had a titanic impact on the history of live chat software.

The introduction and creation of the internet vastly broadened the horizons of real-time chat capability. Anyone with web access could chat with another web user — no matter where in the world they were.

The 90s also saw the creation of ‘chatiquette’ or chat etiquette. This was a set of rules that, no matter where you hailed from, you understood about polite conduct during online chat. (For instance, not talking in ALL CAPS as it’s understood universally as shouting.)

By the end of the 90s, instant messaging programs had entered the fray. There was AOL’s AIM in ’97, Yahoo! Messenger in ’98, and MSN in ’99. These channels served to boost the popularity of the new form of communication.


2000s – Business chat

In business, the move from water-cooler chat to digital chat happened at the turn of the millennium. At this point in the history of live chat software, people had grown familiar with the concept of instant web-based chat.

The popularity of channels like AIM and MSN had removed chat’s ‘seedy’ reputation, and it was time for businesses to start adopting the medium.

Our own WhosOn was one of these early-millennium business-chat tools. In 2002, we launched WhosOn, allowing businesses to see who was visiting their websites. And by 2003, WhosOn gained live chat functionality.


2010s – Apps and chatbots

The popularity of chat didn’t slow down, and by the 2010s chat functionality blended into apps. Real-time chatting merged with the rise of smartphones to become a core aspect of our daily lives.

This included apps like BBM, iMessage, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Live chat software, by this point, had become commonplace across the world wide web. Then, between 2016 and 2017 we saw the phenomenon of the chatbot hype. That is, the rise and excitement around automated chat. Chatbots were the future of real-time chat.

This fell somewhat flat, as the early nature of the technology wasn’t a suitable standalone option. And so chatbots became part of the history of live chat software, as they started to integrate into the tried, tested and popular live chat channels.


The present, the future

The history of live chat software ends on the present day, where chat software is a staple element across business websites.

Now, live chat software is evolving to embrace omnichannel support. Advanced solutions now integrate with phones, emails, apps and social media in one seamless conversation engine. Plus, as artificial intelligence continues to rise, the chatbots making a home in live chat channels stand to become much more helpful.

Live chat software started its journey almost 50 years ago. The history of live chat software was bright. The future of live chat software stands to be brighter still.


Useful links

From chat rooms to chat software to chatbots: the rise of instant messaging

Chatbot history: a countdown through the ages

The future of live chat software