If somebody had told me, back in May 2001, that the software I had started to create would later on be used by millions of people across the globe, I would never have believed it. At the time of writing, the software now called Messenger Plus! Live is used by no less than 60 million people, is officially translated into 21 languages and is downloaded and installed more than 300 thousand times a day. Not bad for a little freeware .
MSN Messenger – Plus! Extension 1.00
I had just turned 20 and I was enjoying my days living in Canada, working as a full time software developer for a Montreal based company. For a reason I can’t remember anymore, I was getting a free edition of the Visual C++ Developers Journal every month, by regular mail. Some times I would read it, sometimes I wouldn’t, but one particular article triggered my interest this day: “Hook, Line, and Sinker” by Dino Esposito.
The article was about something called “Win32 hooks”. Although they were told to be “old” and “faithful”, I had just never heard about them before and what I read in those 6 pages amazed me: Windows allowed applications to “hook” onto other programs and modify their runtime behaviour without the need for low level patching or disassembly. I was so surprised that I spent my afternoon and the following days testing those techniques myself. Although the article used Notepad as an example, it was too limited to give the hooks a good try so I thought about using one of the latest applications I had recently installed on my computer: MSN Messenger 3.6. At that time, Messenger was far from being the popular software it is today but I had given up on ICQ and had found in MSN Messenger a simplicity of use that most other instant messaging clients were lacking.
Because of my background with IRC Log Viewer, one of the first options I tried to add in Messenger was chat logging. I’m still not sure why but Microsoft waited many years before adding that feature in the client itself, despite the fact that most people considered it to be a necessity for any proper instant messaging software. Messenger was still very basic at that point and adding text logging turned out to be easier that I had thought. Seeing I was on to something, I decided to package the whole thing and worked on a setup for public distribution.
From what I can see in my archives (I still have all the versions of Messenger Plus! I have ever released), Version 1.00 Beta 1 was created on May 6th 2001 and the final release of Version 1.00 was released only two weeks later, on May 19th. The original web site and icons were all “un-original creations” from the software developer that I am, as you can see in this screenshot of the very first public release . The name itself was equally un-inspired: “MSN Messenger – Plus! Extension”, changed to “Messenger – Plus! Extension” 3 months later for trademark reasons. Being the first add-on ever released for MSN Messenger, Messenger Plus! immediately caught the attention of internet users, people started to talk about it in blogs and sent it to their friends. This quick positive response naturally motivated me to keep on working.
As I did with most of my projects before that, I spent most of my free time working on Messenger Plus!. Evenings and weekends alike, I coded more features, fixed bugs etc… by the end of the year 2001, I was already seeing some consequences: for one, I was seeing the limits of my “unlimited bandwidth” shared hosting plan. Too many visitors were suddenly coming on the server and the provider was starting to panic. Messenger Plus! itself was a freeware and was actually costing me money every month. At the same time however, it was helping me get consultancy contracts with several companies, including one of particular interest: ActiveBuddy. I was asked to create a new Messenger add-on for the company to add interactive bots into people’s contact list. It was a cool and innovative idea at the time and those bots were providing all sorts of services. We worked together for about two years on a software called the “Interactive Agent Plugin”. Although this was separate from my daily work and Messenger Plus!, I really enjoyed working with these people. They helped me finance my own add-on for a while and not many people seem to know this but the current Windows Live Agents services provided by Microsoft is actually based on their technology (ActiveBuddy was renamed Colloquis and then purchased by Microsoft).
The Messenger Plus! Community and the start of everything
MSN Messenger 4 and 4.5 got out, Microsoft created Windows Messenger to be bundle Messenger with Windows XP, and Messenger Plus! kept on improving along the way. Once it reached version 1.42, Messenger Plus! started to suffer from its weakness: initially meant to be a small-scale project with only 9,000 lines of code, the software, its engine in particular, was under too much pressure and couldn’t be properly updated much longer. The first anniversary of Messenger Plus! was celebrated in silence as life pushed me on another path in 2002. Thankfully by that time, a group of people had already gathered around the product and were visiting the support forum regularly. Messenger Plus! lived on its own for a while, in its current state, left unchanged and supported by its users alone.
For as long as I can remember, the support forum of Messenger Plus! has been able to count on MyBB as its engine. First a sub-site of their own domain, the forum was then moved on its own server and assigned a real name as it was growing up into something resembling much more a community than the average support center. Although some people thought otherwise at times, I never had a single “employee” working there. The forum has always be constituted of people, real people, with their own opinions, point of views and ways of life. Some joined, some left, some stayed for a while… overall, if you excuse the cliché, this is how Messenger Plus! got its heart. I can’t even start to thank these people by name as there are, and have been, just too many of them. I can tell you however that the first thing they did, without my knowledge, was to keep Messenger Plus! alive and kicking for half of the year 2002.
I can remember this moment like if it was yesterday: I was coming back from work, searching for something to do, when I thought of visiting the forum that was linked to this old add-on of mine. Messenger Plus! was far from my mind at that point and I was mainly curious to see if some people were still using it. It had been a while and the reaction of the forum’s members took me by surprise: “Where have you been?!”, “Patchou is here!”, … you can’t help but wondering if people are mistaking you for somebody else with such a warm welcome. I then thought about compiling the latest usage statistics for the software and I found out something incredible: after months of being left unchecked, the stats had gone through the roof! literally, so much that my system couldn’t even count the users properly anymore. I realised it was time to continue where I had left off, and Messenger Plus! 1′s code being what it was, I decided it was the perfect occasion for a complete makeover.
6 months, 5 private betas, 5 public betas and 30,000 new lines of code later, project MP2 was completed! It first took 3 months of work to create and re-think Messenger Plus! from scratch. The first private beta version was released on December 24th 2002 (Christmas Beta!, Beta Claus, Santa Plus!, …) and the next ones followed in sequence after one of the beta setups got leaked to the public. Although this issue was less than enjoyable, it helped me push the project forward even more seeing the incredible feedback this buggy half-finished version generated on many web sites. The final version got released in April 2003 and was the first one to ever be translated (officially) in other languages: 27 to be exact.
At the time, Messenger Plus! version 2 was working in Windows 95/98/Me, Windows NT4/2000/XP, with left-to-right and right-to-left languages, and in both MSN/Windows Messenger 4 and 5. It was a challenge to maintain, but one that proved to be worthwhile. More than ever before, Messenger Plus! helped me develop new skills and allowed me to deliver highly expected features to a large user base. Being a software developer since the age of 16, I couldn’t have asked for more.