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.
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 washingtonpost.com 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?
May 24, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories: Digital culture , The business we have chosen
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