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TERM-talk: PLATO's Instant Messaging

19 December 2002 -- Today marks the 29th anniversary of Dave Andersen's announcement online on PLATO that TERM-talk was now available. Here's his posting:

In light of recent news about AOL/Mirabilis/ICQ getting a U.S. patent on instant messaging, I thought it might be interesting for visitors to this site to read a little bit about PLATO's TERM-talk.

Did the ICQ people have prior exposure to PLATO?

What I am curious about is whether or not any of the four ICQ/Mirabilis co-founders, or the investor father of one of them (Vardi), had any exposure to the PLATO system -- specifically, exposure to TERM-talk -- prior to developing ICQ. I wonder this because Control Data Israel had a PLATO system installed in Israel in the 1980s and it was used extensively by the Israeli Defence Force, and it is known that at least some of ICQ's founders served in the IDF before they founded ICQ. I've contacted the ICQ folks but none of them have responded to me.

Does the following sound like Instant Messaging to you?

You sign on to PLATO and arrive at the AUTHOR MODE page. From there, press SHIFT-U, to see what Users are online at the moment. If you see someone you want to talk to, you press the DATA key (a shortcut on this page for pressing the TERM key, and typing "talk" at the "What term" prompt) and then specifying the name of the person you want to talk to. PLATO then pages the person and two prompts appear at the bottom of the screen. One line is for the person you're talking to, and one line is for you. The conversation is live, character-by-character, in real time. Make a typo? Press the backspace key? The other person sees it all.

And so it would go, people talking day and night, for years and years.

If this isn't the basis for Instant Messaging, I don't know what is.

You might say, "well the big deal about Instant Messaging is the buddy list". Buddy lists weren't necessary because the number of simultaneous users on PLATO was in the hundreds, perhaps a tad over 1000 at its peak. It didn't take long to scan through the list to see if your friends were online. Their names stood out and were instantly recognizable. When you're dealing with the massive scale of the internet, without the benefit of a centralized facility to know who's on, then Buddy Lists make sense. But the facility to instantly communicate with other users was nothing new.

Like so many things in the history of computing, someone somewhere thought of it earlier. I am sure people were doing primitive "talk" capabilities on other machines even in the 1960s (I'm told the PLATO III system had this capability).

But I know of nothing else that took off as early and as virally as TERM-talk did back in the 1970s.

Brian Dear -

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