ICQ Messenger Is Growing for the First Time in Years

Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg

The headquarters of Mail.ru Group Ltd. in Moscow on Nov. 26, 2010. Close

The headquarters of Mail.ru Group Ltd. in Moscow on Nov. 26, 2010.

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Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg

The headquarters of Mail.ru Group Ltd. in Moscow on Nov. 26, 2010.

If you’re old enough (and sufficiently geeky) you probably remember ICQ. The Israeli-developed instant messenger, with the green flower logo and goofy "uh oh” notification sound, had 100 million users at its peak.

ICQ eventually wilted within AOL, which bought the company a couple of years before its disastrous merger with Time Warner. Now, Mail.ru Group, an Internet company controlled by Russia's richest man, is trying to bring ICQ back from the dead.

Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s company paid $188 million to acquire ICQ in 2010, when the program was still popular in Russia and a few other countries. Since then, the global shift to mobile messaging has resulted in even more users jumping ship to apps such as Viber, another Israeli-enginered product that Japan’s Rakuten bought for $900 million, and WhatsApp, which Facebook agreed to buy for $19 billion. ICQ declined from 42 million users in 2010 to 11 million last year, according to data from Mail.ru.

There’s a bright side: Half of them are using ICQ’s mobile apps. In addition to free text messages, ICQ’s smartphone apps let users attach photos and videos, as well as make video calls. Mail.ru poured significant resources into designing an app that looks and acts like it belongs on an iPhone or Android device, rather than on a Compaq.

By finally prioritizing mobile, ICQ has reversed its declines. Mail.ru is seeing user growth for the first time since it acquired the software four years ago. During one week this month, a million people downloaded ICQ in Brazil, temporarily making it the most popular app for Apple devices there. It's also led App Store rankings this month in Uruguay and was among the top-five in Argentina, Mail.ru says. The company declined to provide user numbers by country.

“Our priority is gaining user base,” says Igor Ermakov, head of instant messaging at Mail.ru. “In regions like Russia, Europe and Latin America, we can hope to grow.”

Mail.ru aims to challenge global messengers such as WhatsApp in certain regions, but can it become as lucrative as, say, WeChat? The mobile app from Tencent, a Chinese Internet giant that owns a stake in Mail.ru, has racked up 396 million monthly active users and has gotten many of them to pay for additional services.

For ICQ, Mail.ru may look to a business model popularized by another Asian phenomenon: Line, the Japanese app that made 14.6 billion yen ($144 million) in the first three months of the year mostly by selling virtual stickers. Or ICQ may charge for certain types of online calls as Skype does, Ermakov says. But first, ICQ must recreate some of its early-2000s glory.

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