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.

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.

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Appelman joined after his time at IBM, where he worked on some of the first standards to connect computers over the Internet (through what are known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol or TCP/IP).

Before building a messaging program for the Internet, he created something else that would eventually spawn AIM.

"They didn't have any central presence information," Appelman said.

"They didn't know anything about [the users]." Not so for AOL.

AOL had become a behemoth in the early days of the consumer Internet.

It handled around 180,000 simultaneous connections. Bosco said the goals for AOL's messenger were set much higher: 5 million simultaneous users.

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.

Necessity, being the mother of invention, helped lead to what is now a near given on the web — the buddy list. AOL still charged an hourly fee to be logged onto its service.