History of MSN Chat

Note about the author: At the (very) young age of 11, I stumbled upon the concept of IRC, quite entirely by mistake. I was an active participant on MSN Chat during the years of ’00 – ’06, and I don’t at all claim to know the entire story — which is why a good portion of this has been contributed by the individuals I’ve named in the credits. I am now a full time employee for Microsoft, working as an Escalation Engineer within the Exchange Team – seems fitting that I appear to have come full circle. If you notice anything missing, or anything which is glaringly inaccurate, please feel free to contact me: nascott@microsoft.com.


I’ve been meaning to write something like this for very many years now; indeed, I may have pestered one or two people more than once, subsequently forgetting to take notes and having to ask (yet) another time in order to remind myself. This is dedicated to any and all folks who visited MSN during its active years, and I hope it serves as a reference point for the years to come.

An introduction and mention of Comic Chat

While it would be inaccurate to stipulate that the origins of MSN Chat are directly correlated with Comic Chat, their respective histories are certainly closely intertwined. Comic Chat, and indeed its server of mic.msn.com, came to be with the release of Windows 95 and Internet Explorer 3.0 in 1996. While the server was indeed a true IRC server, if one was to connect using an alternate client (for example, Pirch) it would be somewhat irritating, as Comic Chat users would send text with a special prefix not interpreted by any other clients. The Comic Chat server remained separate until Microsoft decided to shut down its development servers for Exchange Chat, and merge the users of the Comic Chat server into irc.msn.com.

The beginning of MSN Chat

In order to truly understand how MSN Chat came to be, one has to look as far back as 1994. A Microsoft-sponsored project was launched, referred to as chatbeta.exchange.microsoft.com. This was the very first IRCx server which users were able to connect to, and was the development server for the Exchange Chat functionality. While this was not technically a public Chat Server, the administrators and developers had no issues with people connecting; presumably as this aided their development and allowed for feedback. Shortly after this, MSN.com was launched by Microsoft. One of the first services that MSN.com offered was IRC: initially this was done via the use of two different environments, listed below (keep in mind that the users of chat.msn.com were primarily the comic chat users, as this was the default connection address of such):

publicchat.msn.com - This setup was open for all, regardless of ISP;
chat.msn.com - This was the old server that the Comic Chat Client used

How long the aforementioned setup was maintained for has been lost to history, however eventually the two merged and became irc.msn.com, allowing connections on the de-facto IRC port of 6667. irc.msn.com ran separately to chatbeta, however they both used the same software and supported mostly the same functionality. The commonly used clients for these two environments were mIRC, the discontinued Comic Chat client and Pirch, the latter gaining a large fanbase and popularity on both. irc.msn.com grew rapidly, and soon was home to thousands of users who had migrated from other networks, enjoying the new functionality introduced by the IRCx draft which Microsoft had incorporated into their software.

The first great merger: Comic Chat and MSN Chat

Microsoft soon began to realize that running and maintaining three separate environments was somewhat fruitless, and required too much maintenance and support; the chatbeta servers were to be switched offline, and the users and (some) staff transitioned over to irc.msn.com. Towards the end of 1995, chatbeta had been fully shutdown, with the comic chat exclusive servers soon to follow. By 1997, all remaining servers were linked together as irc.msn.com. At this stage there were potentially 9 different servers available for users to connect to. By 1998/1999, the number of active servers had decreased to 7, and the development team behind MSN Chat were contemplating what they considered to be its marketable future. A deserving mention at this point is how Koach came to be a part of what became MSN Chat - as the server which the Comic Chat client used to connect to (MIC/chat.msn.com) was shut down shortly after the demise of the chatbeta server, the users and staff transitioned over to irc.msn.com too. Koach was hired as a trainer at this point, in order to educate the users and staff on IRC clients and a whole different world than what they were used to with Comic Chat.

The era of Web Chat

In late 1999, what the MSN Chat Development Team had been working on for a while was announced to the public; irc.msn.com was to be closed, and the all new chat.msn.com was to be opened. The differences were significant, both behind the scenes and at front of house. It was a move by MSN to try to open up IRC to more than the current client-based audience, by allowing people to chat directly from their browser with little to no technical knowledge. At first, third party clients such as mIRC and Pirch were still able to connect to chat.msn.com; looking back, this was probably to allow people to transition across correctly, because very shortly afterwards the “GateKeeper” and “GateKeeperPassport” method of authentication was introduced and connections to chat.msn.com via third party clients were prohibited (though not fully restricted). What became known as Web Chat (OCX, Chat Control) had actually stemmed from the irc.msn.com days; the MSN Chat Development Team had been working on a web-based control for the MSN Live Events / Celebrity Chats team (Chat Control Versions 1 – 2), and this directly connected to the existing IRC server, with no authentication challenges.

Behind the Scenes - MSN Chat staffing

Almost as soon as the transition was made to the Web Chat environment, and associated new servers, MSN began to start the process of outsourcing the day-to-day management tasks. One of the key factors involved was to ensure that the HelpDesk was staffed 24/7 by properly trained individuals, working on a shift basis. A company called PSI won the bid for the US portion of MSN Chat, whereas various other companies won for the International portions – which were lost entirely circa 2004. For the purposes of this article, I will only be discussing the US portion of MSN Chat.

Once PSI took over, some crucial staffing decisions had to be made. A significant number of previous volunteers were let go, however key people remained. Koach was hired to remain on as a liaison and trainer, and all of the Assistant Chat Managers (that originated back from Comic Chat) were initially kept on to manage the Host Teams in their respective categories. One of the more obvious changes in relation to staff that came about when PSI took over was the creation of previously unseen Guides. These people would work in shifts, in a call centre in the USA, and ensure that the HelpDesk channel was covered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At the time, the general perception was that Guides and Sysops were entirely separate, however in reality the vast majority of Guides were also Sysops – they simply used their Guide names whilst on duty in the HelpDesk. As time went on, and less and less users were connecting to MSN, Microsoft instructed PSI to make some staffing cuts to reduce their perceived cost. As such, all Assistant Chat Managers bar one were removed, thus combining all the volunteer hosts together under one umbrella, and all reporting to one Chat Manager. This person was then responsible for the running of the Official Channels across the entire US market, and so it remained until closure.

MSN Chat - Admin Tools

There were multiple admin tools developed over the years, and this article is only going to cover one of them, developed by Microsoft internally at Redmond for perceived global use. In reality, PSI (specifically, Koach) created tools which were easier for them to use than the ones provided by Microsoft - you can see his own created tools at this following url: http://koach.com/msntools/

Daneel – A web based interface, primarily developed by and for the international market but also interchangeably used with the US market. Functionality included banning users, closing chat rooms which violated the Terms of Service, sending out broadcast (server or network wide) messages, monitoring users and “spam” — sending out messages of advertisement to sponsored rooms on a schedule.

For a long time, there was the ability for users of third party clients to ban MSN Sysops from entering a channel. Daneel also had functionality to remove the Host / Owner keys and remove all privileges from the users therein to allow the Sysop to enter without hindrance.

Chat Architecture

Directory Server– known colloquially to users as the FINDS server, the Directory Server provided functionality that allowed clients to look up the location of a chat room or user and redirect the client to the correct Chat Server. This server was also responsible for generating the room list functionality within the main website.

Chat Server - provided the chat rooms themselves. Core difference from regular IRC networks being that all chatters within an individual room were connected to the same Chat Server. Chatters could not join the room from a different server, with slight exceptions being allowed for Event rooms.

Credits

Koach (real name withheld):

Having been with MSN Chat from the very start, Koach was integral to the accuracy of this article. He runs his own IRC network now, and can be contacted there: irc.koach.com


Robert Lancaster:

Known on MSN chat by his alias xsu|c|desn0wmanx, he was one of the very first to work out how to bypass the Gatekeeper Authentication challenge introduced in Web Chat.


Andrew Gee:

Going by the alias of Bench, his programming knowledge in the later years of MSN Chat provided invaluable insight. We have worked together on many projects, and I consider him a close friend.


Nathan Scott:

Not much to say about me, really. I was active on MSN Chat between 2000 and 2006, and learned a great deal during that time. Now working for Microsoft, I was able to fact-check this article and make some needed adjustments. It can now be safely declared that this article is as accurate as possible pertaining to MSN Chat. I can be contacted on irc.esper.net where I go by the alias of elvenharps.