Well folks, it's true, Mirabilis has been purchased by America Online. How will this affect us? I'll try to answer your questions and concerns on this page.

On June 8, 1998 it was officially announced that AOL will purchase Mirabilis, the developers of ICQ. The press release began:
AMERICA ONLINE, INC. ACQUIRES MIRABILIS LTD AND ITS ICQ INSTANT COMMUNICATIONS AND CHAT TECHNOLOGY

Fast-Growing Web Community with 12 Million Registered
Users Worldwide Will Significantly Advance America Online's
Multiple-Brand Strategy

AOL to Accelerate ICQ's Development as Major Web Portal
with New Features and Functionality

Dulles, VA, June 8, 1998 - Significantly advancing its multiple-brand strategy, America Online, Inc. [NYSE: AOL] today announced that it has acquired Mirabilis Ltd, an Israel-based company which has used its ICQ instant communications and chat technology to rapidly build a Web-based community of more than 12 million registered users worldwide.

Under the terms of the acquisition completed June 5, 1998, America Online paid $287 million in cash to purchase 100% of Mirabilis's assets. Starting in its fiscal year 2001, AOL also will make contingent payments of up to $120 million over three years based on growth performance levels. A substantial portion of the $287 million purchase price is expected to be accounted for as in-process R&D in the Company's fourth quarter ending June 30, 1998. The Company said it does not expect the purchase of Mirabilis to have any negative effect on expected operating earnings.

The full press release may be found at:

http://www.mirabilis.com/press_release26.html

First off, I would like to congratulate Yossi, Sefi, Arik, Yair and Amnon, the founders of Mirabilis, on the successful sale of their company and wish them continued success in the future. They have done a miraculous job of bringing ICQ from initial concept to the premier paging/chat service on the net. Excellent work, gentlemen.

But the big question for the millions of ICQ users is "How will this affect us?" Ever since the announcement of May 20, 1998 by Israel's Business Arena of the AOL buy out, rumors have been flying of the imminent demise of our favorite chat and paging program. All the old "ICQ will start charging" rumors have been given new life, web pages have been springing up overnight with reports of doom and gloom, with ridiculous claims that if they "get enough hits" Mirabilis will remain free or not be purchased by AOL. ICQ forums have been overflowing with irate users swearing they will drop ICQ in favor of one of the competing free pagers if AOL tries to charge them a dime. Dire warnings that all ICQers will be forced to join AOL if they want to continue to use ICQ have been circulating, along with claims that AOL will be selling our info to anyone with a few dollars to spare.

Through it all I have sometimes felt like the lone voice calling for patience and a wait and see attitude. From the start I have had many reasons to doubt that AOL would even attempt to charge for ICQ, reasons that remain just as valid today (I'll be getting to those in a moment). But until the deal closed, Mirabilis could not publicly offer any reassurances, that is the nature of a multi-million dollar business transaction. Now that the contracts have been signed, a notice has appeared on the Mirabilis homepage. I would like to qoute for you one paragraph of that notice:
Because AOL has asked us to continue to run the service exactly as before, we don't intend to make any changes in our policies. We will continue to offer the software and the service exactly under the same terms and conditions as before (time limited free beta). And of course, you will still be able to use ICQ No matter who your ISP is, or where you live.

Please note the key word in that paragraph:
FREE
While no one can promise that ICQ will always be free, since its first release Mirabilis's policy has never changed, it has been and remains a "time limited free beta." There are a number of very good reasons to believe that this policy will remain in effect for many years to come. Among them:

A buddy list is only useful as long as your buddies are on it. If AOL begins to charge for ICQ then most of my buddies are going to switch to one of the many competing free services, and I'm going to be going with them. You know it, I know it, Mirabilis knows it and don't kid yourself, AOL knows it, too. There is no need to take a poll, forward a message or start a petition. A so-called Subscription Model simply won't work for a buddy list, it has to remain free if a large number of people are going to continue to join and use it.

Now before you fire-up your e-mail client to inform me about how greedy AOL is, let me just say that I am well aware of their long history of bleeding every last dime out of their membership. Ditto for their technical difficulties and sometimes harsh acceptable use policies. In fact, I have encouraged as many of my friends and family members who used AOL to switch to a different ISP. I won't go into all the reasons for this here, but rest assured that I am well aware of AOL's business practices and the difficulties they have encountered with their service.

That being said, I would point to AOL's own buddy list, Instant Messenger, as evidence that they know the importance of keeping such systems free and open. Anyone, AOL member or not, can download and use IM for free. So why would they treat ICQ any differently? Different software, but the same concept and usefulness conditions apply.

This raises an interesting question. If AOL already has a buddy list, what do they want ICQ for? Some people have suggested that they want to "kill off the competition." Not likely, because after killing off ICQ they would then have to purchase all the rest of the free services like Excite PAL, Ding!, IChat and every other pager that the former ICQers would likely flee to. For every company AOL tried to acquire, a new one would form. And look what happened to Microsoft when they tried that approach... can you say "anti-trust lawsuit?" The last thing AOL wants to do is kill off ICQ, on the contrary, they have every reason to see it continue to grow and improve.

So why did they shell out 287 mega-bucks for a small Israeli company? The answer is for you and I, the ICQ community. Remember the golden rule of online pagers: a buddy list is only as useful as the number of buddies you have on it, and ICQ is very well established. That is not to say the actual software isn't first rate, I consider the ICQ interface to be a work of true genius. But ICQ was the first successful Internet pager and it has pretty much become the de facto standard for keeping in touch with your online friends. And provided AOL doesn't try something incredibly stupid (like charging for membership or screwing around with the interface), ICQ is likely to remain the standard pager on most people's desktop.

I believe that AOL will take a "hands-off" approach to ICQ. Note the line from Mirabilis' homepage statement: "AOL has asked us to continue to run the service exactly as before." As of this time, I see no reason to doubt that, despite the shrill cries of the rumor mongers (who I would note have never been correct about anything in the past). Also noteworthy is this statement from the official press release: "Starting in its fiscal year 2001, AOL also will make contingent payments of up to $120 million over three years based on growth performance levels." Arik and the rest of the guys at Mirabilis have a lot riding on the continued success of ICQ, at least through the turn of the century. If anything, I expect ICQ to continue to improve, and having AOL as a parent will hopefully do more good than harm.

Still, one question lingers... if we aren't going to pay for ICQ, how does AOL expect to profit from it? While I have no inside information to answer that, I can dust off my crystal ball and speculate on a few of the possibilities.

Multi-Tier Subscription Model
The current plan indicates that Mirabilis will continue to improve ICQ. But will the future improved versions always be free? It is possible to offer a standard version of the ICQ client for free, while also offering a deluxe feature enhanced version for either sale or by subscription. This is not uncommon, other services such as Pagoo have already been offering this. Anyone can use the service for free, but if you are willing to spend a few dollars you can have an enhanced version with extra features. Assuming Mirabilis/AOL doesn't strip-down the free standard version (ie. all the current features remain intact), some power-users might be willing to pay for the extra goodies. The key here is to keep the free version useful and not to try to force the premium version on anyone. If the price was reasonable and the extra features worthwhile, I would consider upgrading from the standard version (I already pay my ISP for premium service, so why not have a deluxe version of ICQ as well?).

Web Based Advertising
As of this writing (June 10th, 1998), the Mirabilis homepage has been ranked by 100hot.Com as the 4th most popular site on the web. Folks, let me tell you something, that is a lot of eyeballs looking at Mirabilis' web pages and they could generate a respectable income for their new parent by just displaying a few ad banners. I'm a little surprised they haven't done this in the past, but their intention has been to keep the service completely independent. Now I will be very surprised if greedy ol' AOL doesn't start running ads on Mirabilis' web site. But I really can't blame them, that is part of doing business on the Internet, just as ad revenue has been a fixture on commercial television and in print journalism. Many of my own web pages sport ad banners in return for use of "free" services such as guestbooks, counters, forums, chatrooms, etc. So if ad banners begin to show-up on Mirabilis' pages, I won't raise a fuss, that is just life on the Internet. In fact, I feel this is the least objectionable way that AOL could attempt to make a return on their investment.

Client Based Advertising
Several of the other "free" pagers that I have tried incorporate advertising directly into the client software, meaning that along with the contact list there is also a stream of ads being displayed. I seriously don't like this. It is one thing to have an ad banner appear as part of a web page, quite another to have them become a fixture on my desktop, as ICQ has become. To make matters worse, what I like best about ICQ (aside from the fact that all my friends use it) is the brilliantly designed interface, where I simply can't see any place to display an ad in a way that wouldn't detract from the design. So I'm hoping that ICQ won't go the way of the other pagers and pollute their beautiful interface by turning it into an ad banner.

There is another variation on advertising through the client software, and that is by displaying an ad in a pop-up window each time the program logs into the server, similar to the way the current version displays a system announcement window. While this would leave the interface intact, it would also slow down the log-in process. If this starts to happen, I'm sure many ICQers, including myself, would grumble about it, but we would probably grudgingly accept it as part of the "price" for "free" software and the service. I would only ask that the ads be kept small, that a browser not need to be run to display them and that the window can be closed (or automatically close) the way the current system announcement window does.

Database Sales
AOL is infamous for selling their user's info (name, e-mail, location, etc.) to just about anyone with a checkbook. As a result, many AOLer's get flooded with spam. Lately rumors have been spreading that the first thing AOL will do with the ICQ user database is offer it up to the spammers. Personally, I'm not too concerned about this. For one thing, we don't have to enter anything in our ICQ info besides a first name or handle (something has to appear on the contact list). Furthermore, the ICQ database is already up for grabs, it is fairly simple to write a program that will automatically query each UIN and store the returned info. I know junior high schoolers capable of writing such a program in an evening, and depending on the speed of their Internet connection and Mirabilis' servers, they could make a copy of the entire ICQ database in a couple of days by seaching each UIN in order. So I don't care what AOL does with the info, it is already part of the public domain as far as I'm concerned. But if you are really worried about this, I have a few tips for you.

Don't include much info about yourself, such as your e-mail address. If you still want your friends to be able to e-mail you, try doing what the Usenet posters have been doing for years to defeat spambots (automatic e-mail address gathering programs similar to what was just described to query the ICQ database) by including a "spam block" as part of your e-mail address.

Example:
diamondback@mindspring.com becomes
diamondback@nospam_mindspring.com or
diamondback@removethis_mindspring.com

Your friends (assuming they have at least half a brain) will know to remove the spam block before e-mailing you, but the automatic e-mailers would probably send e-mail to an address where it would bounce back to them. As the spambots get more sophisticated and pick-up on phases like "nospam," we'll just have to be more clever about what we add to our e-mail addys. You could go one step further and get a free e-mail account from any of the many services such as Hotmail. If the account starts to get too much spam then open a new one, e-mail your friends the new addy, and close out the old account. The bottom line is, think ahead about what you want to include in your ICQ info, and don't put in anything you wouldn't want to be public knowledge... because it is already public knowledge even without AOL selling to anyone.

I hope having read this far that some of your concerns have been addressed. Please note that I am not affiliated with Mirabilis or AOL, I have no inside information or official statements to pass along. My opinions are strictly my own and based on publicly available information plus some common sense. I've written this page in the hope that it will help to put a stop to some of the false rumors being spread about ICQ. In my opinion, the biggest threat to ICQ is the disinformation being passed by people who don't know what they are talking about, or in some cases are intentionally trying to spread panic. Each time an ICQ user leaves the system it devalues the usefulness of the program for all of us. I would ask you to respond to false rumors about ICQ by sending back a message saying that spreading false info is a disservice to the ICQ community and then send them to either the Mirabilis homepage or to one of my own pages at http://diamond-back.com/icqlies.html). I don't care whether my page gets a "million hits" or not, I just don't want to see one of the most useful programs I have get trashed by a bunch of irresponsible morons. If one of the people on your contact list gets suckered in by these messages, please don't just put them on ignore... try to enlighten them so the chain of lies gets broken. I'll continue to do my share to spread the truth, but I can't do it alone. I need your help, and ultimately you will be helping yourself. Thank you for taking the time to read this, I truly appreciate your visit.

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