IRC (Internet Relay Chat) has been around since 1988, which makes it ancient in Internet terms.
And although it’s still used by hundreds of thousands of users around the world, IRC has seen a dramatic downturn in usage.
We have talked to the creator of IRC, and others, in this area why the once so widely used technology has seemingly fallen out of favor with so many users.
We connected with Jarkko Oikarinen, the creator of IRC, who works at Google in Sweden, and he told us the tale of how IRC was born.
The initially IRC Server. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Oikarinen says that he produced IRC during three to four months in 1988 when he was a summer intern at the University of Oulu in Finland.
At the time, Oikarinen was maintaining a local BBS (Bulletin Board System) called OuluBox and the chat system there needed refreshing. While effective on the updated chat system he also wanted to allow participants from the Internet who didn’t need to be logged in to OuluBox to participate in chat.
Thus, IRC was born.
Since then, IRC has served as an invaluable way of communicating for scores of users around the world. For nearly no matter what you’d like to discuss or get help with, there’s been an IRC arrangement and channel that would serve your interests.
But since the arrival of the new century, IRC has dropped in popularity, with users moving to additional forms of communication like the web and social media. We took a look at the numbers to see just how terrible it is for IRC.
Oikarinen attributes the decline in IRC to a trend of commercialization on the Internet.
“Companies want to bring users to their walled gardens,” he says, to ”keep the user’s profiles locked there and not make it simple for users to leave the garden and take their data with them.”
IRC’s distributed nature does not fit with the walled garden approach, says Oikarinen. So instead of supporting open communication tools like IRC, companies invest money in making their own solutions, he claims.
Christian Lederer, also known as “phrozen77,” is the webmaster of IRC-Junkie.org and he’s had his pulse on the IRC community for many years. According to Lederer, the decline in IRC usage has many possible reasons behind it:
So the decline in IRC usage is a complex issue with no straightforward answers. But it’s not all terrible news, as we’ll see next.
If we look more closely at the top six IRC networks and chart their development since 2003, it’s clear there are winners and losers.
In fact, Freenode has, according to these numbers, just become the number one IRC arrangement in the world, just bypassing QuakeNet.
Christel Dahlskjaer, President of Peer-Directed Projects Focal point(PDPC), the organization that operates Freenode, clarifies the arrangement’s growth with its focus on free and open source software.
“Freenode has indeed grown and continues to grow,” Dahlskjaer clarifies. “Freenode has never been a ‘traditional’ IRC arrangement though. Our users tend to come to Freenode because they contribute to or use a free and open source (or additional peer-directed) project that has a channel or more on the arrangement. Then in turn additional projects come to Freenode because there is a lot of overlap when it comes to users and contributors across the various projects.”
On the question of whether Freenode’s current excellent fortune is sustainable, Dahlskjaer is direct. “I see no reason to reckon that growth is likely to stall anytime soon. For the last six years at least, Freenode has been very steady,” she says.
It’s clear that IRC is declining in overall usage but on the rise in certain niche areas. Perhaps that’s where the future of IRC lies.
Lederer says that IRC has to innovate to compete with simple-to-use solutions such as Facebook. This, in turn, is driven by a change in mindset of developers of IRC-related software, who have to drive this innovation, client-wise as well as protocol and server-wise.
To Oikarinen,“more interoperability” with additional systems such as 3D virtual worlds, multimedia, etc. is one “fascinating path forward.” Oikarinen is no longer actively involved in the development of IRC, but he says that it’s up to individuals now.
Lederer makes a similar point, saying that some stand-lonely clients are by now pushing the boundaries of what is possible on IRC. He points to projects like KVIrc, which brought video chat to traditional IRC, as well as Konversation, with which several IRC users can share a virtual whiteboard.
Although there’s no reason to reckon that IRC will disappear anytime soon, there’s also cause for interest in this area the future of the once so well loved technology. Although Freenode can serve as an example of a on the rise IRC community, that, in and of itself does not mean the future is secure for IRC.
We at Pingdom admit the tremendous value that IRC has brought to users around the world for many years, and hope that IRC will keep being widely used. In fact, we’ve just set up our own IRC server, which we have some exciting plans for.
Note in this area the data: We used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to go back in time and look at how IRC has developed over recent years, using the data from SearchIRC.com. We’d like to point out that not all IRC networks are indexed by SearchIRC.com, the service we used to make the charts for this article. For example, Undernet is not a part of the SearchIRC index. We believe, though, that the general trend showed by the SearchIRC data is right. Top image via Shutterstock.
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