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Lessons from AOL as it turns 25

In one corner of my cubicle, I've thumbtacked a battered old AOL floppy disk. It's there to remind me how far Internet access has advanced -- and how the mighty can fall.

The company first known as Quantum Computer Services and then America Online turned 25 years old Monday. My colleague Mike Rosenwald noted the anniversary in this article; for a different, irony-enriched take, see Harry McCracken's annotated compilation of a decade's worth of AOL press releases at Technologizer.

Thumbnail image for new_aol_logo.jpg

It's difficult to square today's shrunken remnant -- split off from Time Warner in late 2009 and then graced with the lower-case logo you see at right, ending perhaps the worst merger ever -- with the corporation that once dominated tech-news headlines in the way that Apple, Facebook and Google do today.

Back in the late 1990s, AOL's influence reached deep into my own address book and The Post's staff directory. At one time or another, at least 10 friends worked for AOL. (Only two still do.) And so many Post online staffers departed for more lucrative offers at AOL during a two-year stretch -- as if our Web newsroom had become a mere personnel-recycling facility -- that I got tired of being invited to their going-away happy hours. (One refugee briefly tried to interest me in joining him at AOL; the conversation ended when I asked him, "So what sort of writing would I be able to do? Your description of this job doesn't seem to include any.")

What went wrong? I take two lasting lessons from AOL's experience.

1. In a contest between open and closed systems that both aim to provide the same basic services, bet on openness. AOL did well competing against the equally proprietary systems of CompuServe, MSN and Prodigy, but once any dial-up provider could offer Web and e-mail access using industry-standard software, AOL's custom-built application aged rapidly.

2. Lack of speed kills. AOL had no realistic broadband strategy beyond hoping that people might pay extra to keep AOL on top of their cable or digital-subscriber-line connection. That fared so badly that you'd think no other Internet company would make the same mistake -- but EarthLink never got around to building out its own broadband network and so looks as doomed as AOL's dial-up business. The same goes for DSL-only providers that can't match the increasing speeds of cable or fiber-optic connections.

Those factors don't mean AOL has no future at all on the Internet: As the number of times I link to its tech-news blog Engadget might suggest, the company runs some quality Web properties these days. Its e-mail and instant-messaging services also still draw millions of users -- though I can't be bothered with IM anymore.

But if you're still using AOL, you do need to get your data out of its proprietary software. (My last advice on that topic dates to 2006; I guess I need to revisit that subject). Keep your AOL mail account if you want, but access it in standard e-mail applications that you can keep using if you switch Internet providers later on.

I'm pretty sure that most of you took that step years ago, but you never know until you ask. So: What's the extent of your interaction with AOL these days?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 24, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The business we have chosen  
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All of my interaction with AOL occurs on its 'independent' sites such as Engadget. Still, I think, AOL'sgroup of sites combined are among the top properties for Internet traffic. So, it has retained customers despite having trouble monetizing them.

Posted by: query0 | May 25, 2010 5:26 AM | Report abuse

I have customers who like AOL's interface (mostly older customers). I tell every one of them to get their mail off the "save on my computer" thing and save it on their server. When the AOL mail store fails, it's failed. Trying to get advice from AOL on how to recover e-mail one tech supporter said "you shouldn't have stored it on your computer."

I consider AOL software a licensed bug.

Posted by: MAL9000 | May 25, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

In this tech age, 25 years is like 2500 years. AOL is a dying company. With all the broadband ISPs around, who needs this dinosaur. AOL, it's time to quit.

Posted by: sayNo2MS | May 25, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

"Those factors doesn't mean AOL has no future at all on the Internet:"

Rob, your editor needs to go to AOL where s/he doesn't have to write.

Posted by: therev1 | May 25, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

My husband uses AOL for everything, mail most of all. Last week he decided he wanted an iPad. The first thing he had them put on it was AOL.
Okay, he's 77.

Posted by: amagansett | May 25, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

@therev1: You misspelled "you" as "your editor." Congratulations on discovering that blogs are written by people in a hurry! That sentence is fixed now.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | May 25, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I use my AOL e-mail account when I want to sign up for something online, but don't want any pesky automated e-mails junking up my real e-mail address. I access the account through the website, and find the interface just too clunky to use on a more regular basis.

Posted by: dcn8v | May 25, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't aol own TMZ?

Posted by: | May 25, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't aol own TMZ?

Posted by: | May 25, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

i think most techies on here would be surprised at how many people still think they need aol to get on the internet. i do call center tech support, and 90% of the time when i ask a dumb american who their isp is, their response is aol. it's ridiculous, aol sucks, time to either change into something or just sell it off.

Posted by: BMACattack | May 25, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Lets not forget that AOL made millions by billing customers credit cards for months and even years after they canceled their accounts. Some states fined them and it took years to get these thieves to quit the practice. Poo on AOL there is nothing to admire about a company that started by ripping off the public.

Posted by: metroman76 | May 25, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

two things:

1. Are you going to tell Apple that a closed system will eventually fail? AOL gained 40mm users on a closed system. It lost the war because, like most companies, it was the victim of a business cycles - a better technology arrives and takes market share. Same thing will happen to Facebook and Google. This isn't a coherent argument.

2. Speed is key? Really? That's all? I mean, that's pretty axiomatic, right? Sort of like saying, having a faster computer is important? Yes, it's true, but even AOL made that argument.

3. Yes, the TW merger failed, but Case did the merger because he saw, way before many others, that he was going to fare badly in the next tech war and wanted to diversify company holdings. Yeah, it went bad, but most mergers do.

I like your stuff. But you pretty much called this one in - try to do a little more research and thought on the next blog.

Posted by: nowayname | May 25, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

There are a couple significant Internet wide AOL contributions worth mentioning:

1) AOL was one of the first service providers to focus on security; providing spam and malware protection, free downloads of security suite packages, and monitoring of accounts for suspicious activity. If anything pops up on AOL's monitoring they notify the account owner and assist them in correcting it. Something many service and application providers still haven't figured out. Hello Facebook?

2) The AOL interface has always been focused on user friendly interaction, making it a winner for the not so techie users. The techies are still the minority, the majority of users need the type of UI that AOL provides, are comfortable with it, and probably explains why so many have stuck with it.

I have been a long time user of AOL on our primary home computer. My parents, wife and kids grew up using AOL, and I greatly appreciated the simplicity and integrated security provided for them by AOL while learning to use the Internet. Despite it's technical and business issues, I'd still recommend it for the average non-techie home users.

Posted by: jeshiple | May 26, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

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