The Evolution of Live Chat

By team
May 5, 2022 | 5 mins
The Evolution of Live Chat

The small box in a corner of your browser screen, the chat widget, allowing you to directly chat in real-time with the helpdesk of the website you are visiting. Your business can’t do without it these days, and you might even take it for granted. It’s easy, fast, and convenient. Live chat is relatively new but its roots can be traced back further than you would think.

The Dawn of Customer Service

The first documented communication between a customer and a merchant is found on the Ea-nasir clay tablet from circa 1750 BCE, describing a complaint about the quality of a copper purchase. A servant had to travel back and forth to pick up the goods and deliver messages. You can imagine this state of affairs being quite costly and time-consuming.

Before the general adoption of the telephone by the public in the 20th century, contacting a merchant or company could take a lot of time. You had to physically visit them or resort to sending a letter, waiting for days or even weeks to see any issue resolved.

The emergence of call centers in the 1960s was a true milestone in customer service. Call centers would remain the predominant communication channel between companies and their customers, even with the rise of email in the 1990s, for over half a century.

In the first decade of this millennium CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, as we know it today, gained massive traction and increased the efficiency of call centers and customer service in general.

Although, these technological innovations improved the service for customers immensely, the real game changer was yet to arrive.

The Arrival of Chat

To understand what is needed for the existence of chat widgets, we have to go way back, even before the internet, to the first digital exchange of information between users. Even though this took place on a single machine without a network, it paved the way for the technology behind live chats. Initially designed as a notification system for services like printing, CTSS developed at MIT in 1961, facilitated communication via text message for up to 30 people.

The first electronic message between two computers over a network dates back to 1969. The message “lo”, a failed login attempt, was sent from UCLA to SRI over ARPANET. The successful login happened an hour later.

Online chat systems emerged in the following decade. Talkomatic, the first actual multi-user chatroom, was created in 1971 for the PLATO system. This chatroom had the messages appear in real-time on all users’ screens, character for character, as they were typed.

The term “chat” was coined for the first time in 1979, used as a command for The Source, an online service by Dialcom Inc. The first publicly available and dedicated online chat service was the CompuServe CB Simulator in 1980.

In the following decades chatrooms and instant messaging networks gained popularity with IRC in 1988, ICQ in 1996, and AOL Instant Messaging in 1997.

In 1998 Jeremie Miller invented Jabber/XMPP technologies as an open source alternative to proprietary services like AIM and ICQ. XMPP became a popular protocol often used in live chat software. However, many live chat providers use their own proprietary systems (which can still make use of XMPP or other open source protocols).

Besides the aforementioned communication protocols, network infrastructures and browser technologies were developed at the same time. All being indispensable for the existence of chat widgets, but we will remain our focus on chats for this blog.

The Era of Live Chat Software

It is impossible to accredit the invention of live chats to a single person or company. Multiple developers seem to have been working independently on an early version of this concept around the same time. In 2003 both LiveChat and WhosOn were offering their first live chat support systems for businesses. This was fundamentally different from the existing support forums, which you still find today at companies like Microsoft and HP (Edit: HP now has a virtual agent), as the communication happened in real time.

The first live chats were not the same as what you are used to today. A new browser window had to be opened and it had a basic design. Functionality like screen sharing and file transfers were not yet available. It took many iterations before we could enjoy chat services from the comfort of our browser, and even more for it to become an accessible means of offering customer support for business owners.

History Live Chat Chat Widgets