Patchou's Cabana

The home page and blog of Cyril Paciullo

The Messenger Plus! Story Page 4

The creation of Messenger Plus! Live

Going back to the end of 2005, something significant happened at Microsoft: “MSN” turned into “Windows Live” or at least, that’s how they presented it at the time (as of 2009, the MSN brand still exists and focuses on specific parts of Microsoft’s online strategy). The first beta version of MSN Messenger 8 was named Windows Live Messenger Beta 1 and Windows Messenger (the version of MSN Messenger previously distributed with Windows XP) was abandoned.

This new branding was paving the way to newer, better versions of Messenger and I felt compelled to be part of that new experience. Messenger Plus! 3.61 was still working very well at the time and did not require, per se, a complete overhaul. The engine developed for Messenger Plus! 2, three years before, was still doing the job. The one thing that was becoming more and more of a problem though was backward compatibility: Messenger Plus! was still distributed as being compatible with MSN Messenger 4.7, 5.0, 6.0, 7.0 and 7.5, Windows Messenger 4 and 5, in an ANSI version for Windows 98/Me and a Unicode version for Windows 2000/XP. Testing every new release in all those environments was, to quote King Leonidas, madness! Also, as Microsoft was “borrowing” more and more features from Messenger Plus! to include them directly in Messenger, some old features like custom contact names had no purpose existing in my own add-on anymore.

For all those reasons and also because a new challenge is always fun, I decided it was time to start all over again, create a new project in Visual Studio, start with a blank page and re-code everything from the beginning. This time though, no more ANSI versions, no more old Windows compatibility (Windows XP only), and no more support for old versions of Messenger: only the new Windows Live Messenger would be supported. This new environment pushed me to work on a name change and so, Messenger Plus! was rebaptised Messenger Plus! Live (soon followed by other third-party add-ons that used the same naming convention). From a developer’s point of view, the experience was incredible. General users don’t tend to notice how much technology is bundled with every new version of Windows, and ditching Windows 98 to go XP exclusive was probably equivalent to somebody used to drive an old Peugeot being suddenly given the latest Mercedes-Benz. Suddenly, I had a lot more toys to play with and that surely helped me spend many days and nights on that new project.

Messenger Plus! Live - Beta Testers WallpaperIt took Microsoft 7 months to go from Beta to Public, and that’s what I had to work with to release Messenger Plus! Live 4.00. Fortunately, I still had a very much dedicated team of beta testers, helpers and friends: thanks to them, concept ideas were transformed into working features in the shortest amount of time possible. On the graphic side, a special UI library was developed to match the custom look & feel of Messenger, similar enough to make users comfortable while keeping as many differences as possible to keep a distinct identity. Important new features were created, like Scripting (and its hundred pages of documentation, it’s such a pain to write so much documentation, you wouldn’t imagine :-p ) which replaced the old Plugins system and allowed developers to quickly create personalized extensions to Messenger. Some other features were planned and designed but only implemented at a later date, like Skinning, with all the building blocks already put in place for when I could spend some more time on it. This new release was awaited so much that a virus appeared with the name “MsgPlusLive 4.0″ to fool people into downloading and running it! The 5th anniversary of Messenger Plus! got celebrated with its 150th million installation recorded since its existence and a month later, Messenger Plus! Live became public, on June 24th at precisely 23:40 GMT. Just before that, my testers team made my day by sending me a special wallpaper that I kept as my background for at least a year; that’s what you can see on the right side of this paragraph.

Messenger Plus! Live, from 2006 to 2009

It was not the first time I was releasing a new version at a fixed time in a day and I was used to the heavy load issues this could generate. That being said, I was certainly not prepared for what happened on that Saturday night when Plus! Live was released. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the night for a majority of users, the server simply melted down under the pressure. Many testers set-up temporary mirrors on dozens of external servers and even so, I spent most of the night fixing what I could fix on the main msgpluslive.net server. It was worthwhile though, and I have great memories attached to that particular night spent fighting the flow. It’s a strange but wonderful feeling to see so much enthusiasm for what is, in the end, just an add-on for an instant messaging software. Since that time though, I stopped giving precise timing information for new releases and sticked to giving a day, with no hour attached :-) .

A whole new web site was created to coincide with the new release which is still, in essence, what people can see today in 2009, when visiting msgpluslive.net. Many localised domain names were acquired for the occasion (mostly thanks to translators all over the world who made it possible) and a lot of work was put into making the site more extensible and more helpful for those who were seeking help or advice. The community forum at msghelp.net globally stayed the same though: no reason to fix something that ain’t broken, especially when it’s managed so well. For the first time, the entire web site got translated too, helping bring an even bigger mass of people to the product. By the end of 2007, Messenger Plus! was installed and running on 25 million computers and by the end of 2008, when a “unique user counting” statistic was added in the software, access from 58 million different user accounts was recorded in a given month.

Messenger Plus! Live Logo

The software never seemed to stop, never ceased to increase its presence and people kept on talking about it for various reasons. In January 2009, The Guardian, one of UK’s most important newspaper, even published a full page article about Messenger Plus!, its community and myself, putting my face on the front page of their Technology section (in a strange photo montage). As users were increasing, so was the pressure; despite being blessed with wonderful people who helped me concentrate on development for all these years, it was time for me to take a step back. For that reason, I decided it was time for me to remove myself personally from the software, beginning by replacing “Patchou” (my own nickname) with “Yuna Software” (the company owning Messenger Plus!) in the summer of 2009, to ensure that users who cared about this kind of thing understood it was not just about me anymore. The fact that I was still alone, coding and managing Messenger Plus!, taking care of its multiple facets, was hurting the product for the long run. There is only so much one guy can do in a day.

The days of “Messenger Plus! by Patchou” are now over and the switch to Yuna Software has been completed. The product now relies on a more robust base and it is my hope that it will help Messenger Plus! grow up even more in the future. For that reason, I thought it would be appropriate to sum up the last 8 years of my life in an article like this one, before too much of it gets distorted by time, which is also why I created this blogging site in the first place. For a long time, msgplus.net was a place where I published my work, tried to share my passion with others, and talked about just anything I felt like talking. After so many years spending my weekends on a single product, I think it’s fair to say I’ve done my part and I can now dissociate my personal life from my work again, even if just a little. For the first time since I read “Hook, Line, and Sinker” by Dino Esposito though, I’m not the one deciding on what’s to be included in the next versions of Messenger Plus! to be released.

Epilogue

Messenger Plus! 5 was released in January 2011 and I finally left the company a month later. The new Messenger Plus! software and web site being the product of the new group, I was able to let go of my remaining responsabilities. Messenger Plus! now flies with its own wings, in a new direction and without my assistance. We had about half the user base of Facebook in late 2008, a pretty incredible feat on its own when you think about it. The whole community of users, translators, testers, script developers, skin designers, forum moderators and myself took it there, and this will be my final memory of this story.

Thank you all, one last time, for all the support you’ve given me for such a long time. It’s been a terrific ride. I wrote this text as much for visitors to read it as I wrote it for myself so thank you for your time and take care of yourselves.

Patchou, December 15th, 2009  (updated March 3rd 2011)

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