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AOL RIP: Where The Net Was Born for Many

AOL logoA RIP announcement often gives us word of a celebrity who has passed away after they have left the public mind. The death of AOL, with its purchase by Verizon for $4.4 billion, is certainly the end of a company that is no longer what it once was. But AOL was a very big story and one worth recovery.

The fact is America Online, as it was known in the early days, was responsible for the birth of consumer communications. It was born in 1989 out of some even earlier services as a dial up–in those days, the only way to think about it–information service. Back then, the internet was government controlled and mostly limited to academics. Other services, such as CompuServe and MCI Mail, were interested mainly in businesses.

Steve Case had a very different idea. This was to be a service for millions of consumers. In its early years, it added dozens of sources of information and invited members to discussion groups. (Back then it was only text; neither audio nor video existed on dial up networks and even pictures were a challenge.) AOL lined up members by flooding the U.S. with sign up software on floppy disks, often thrown in with magazines and newspapers.

AOL was clearly a success. It did in competitors, such as Prodigy, a company created by CBS, IBM, and Sears. It invented all sorts of online conversations. Years before Reddit came up with Ask Me Anything sessions on the internet, magazines put their stories online and journalists on AOL to discuss content (I did it fairly regularly for BusinessWeek).

AOL MailEmail, which had been a service in academia and some businesses, became popular for the public as “You’ve got Mail” let you know about an incoming announcement. (And a movie in 1998, a remake of the better film The Shop Around the Corner.)

AOL made itself a leader in the internet business. It bought Netscape, the leading web browser and the builder of a considerable net service. Interestingly, the purchase of Netscape was $4.4 billion, just a bit (without adjustment for inflation) more than the Verizon-AOL deal.

But AOL’s secret was the company’s business still stood on dial-in calls to the service. As 2000 approached, services such as DSL and TV cable began replacing dial up. AOL remained a sign up opportunity for customers who had other connections, but there were also lots of other services, like Microsoft’s MSN and others. AOL could go on sending out sign ups, now on CDs, but the field was getting less popular.

AOL MessageServices were also being attacked. Once upon a time, AOL messages were for content and conversation. We even used them for quick and easy chats at work. But they were eventually overcome by SMS, not to mention services from Apple iMessage to WhatsApp.

People managed not to notice the internet group that was squeezing AOL. Case and Gerald Levin announced the merger of AOL and Time Warner, creating a massive combination of movies, television, books, magazines, and the internet.

It seemed like a great company, but it somehow never worked. Time Warner, already dealing with the problems of publishing and Hollywood movie-making, never joined with AOL effectively. Case, who had served as chairman, lost interest in less than five years and went off to focus on investments in the health business. AOL, which moved from its merged corporate headquarters in Manhattan to its old home near Virginia’s Dulles Airport, faded away. An acquisition has been expected for a long time.

One question about the Verizon purchase is the future of some AOL properties that really do not seem to fit, especially with an ongoing fight over net neutrality. Huffington Post, a major news publisher with a generally liberal tilt, and two leading tech sites, Engadget and TechCrunch, do not seem to fit well with Verizon. Re/code’s Kara Swisher reported talks were already in progress to sell HuffPo to various buyers, with the leader being Germany’s Axel Springer.

Whatever happens in the end, there appears to be not much left of AOL except ads and some members. The end of AOL is not much of a surprise.

Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

37 thoughts on “AOL RIP: Where The Net Was Born for Many”

  1. AOL was an extremely successful enterprise, for a time. For the common person it provided a direct line to the internet, both as a connection and as a safe and curated environment for non-technically inclined users. Heck, many a grandmother thought AOL “was” the internet. It was a vast giveaway campaign. Millions upon millions of coaster (floppy disks/CDs) were scattered everywhere. There was even a time where free PCs were given out, with an AOL subscription.

    I see many parallels between AOL in it’s heyday and Apple today. A highly software integrated, curated, safe environment that made the internet easy. There was a very important difference too. On the same hardware you were also just as able to NOT use AOL and venture off as you pleased, and come back. My contempt of Apple is no secret, but this actually encapsulates my opinions quite well, with iOS devices, it’s all AOL all the time.

    1. Yeah, Apple isn’t doomed. Comparing the two is non-sense. AOL doesn’t make cell phones. AOL doesn’t make laptops or desktops. AOL doesn’t make watches. See the difference? One company makes hardware, one doesn’t.
      You can drool over your Samsung phone all day long, but at the end of the day, they are also a hardware maker that makes the box. “PC” people for a long time used to rip Apple for “Making the box” but as it turns out in the end, the Box maker won, and Apple makes the box and the software.

      1. Is it okay with you if I also drool over my Nokia?
        One company made the internet easy and safe, but did not wall you in. The other walls you in. Get it?

      2. PC nerds are terrified by how successful Apple is now, especially because Apple’s closed, curated, vertical approach wasn’t supposed to work. Some still argue *today* that it can’t work. But it does work, and it turns out the premium customer segment prefers this solution. Most of the arguments against Apple come from a foundation of fear.

        1. It works as long as you “stay within the lines” and conform. There’s a big world outside those gates, some of it is even good, as per the travelers taste. Some PC users have, or would like to, enjoy Apple’s otherwise fine products (otherwise being choice).

          Like I said, all AOL, all the time.

          1. Go sell your BS somewhere else. Nobody cares about your decades-old fear-mongering.

          2. You know, just about every debate we’ve had supports the notion that you should have supported AOL just as vigorously. But you don’t. I wonder why.

            Had AOL locked users in exclusively to their version of the internet, I would *itch just as vigorously. But they didn’t, so I don’t care.

            Do you fear choice so much as to call it fear mongering? It’s freedom mongering, but hey, “You’ve got mail”.

          3. I don’t remember ever making a comment about AOL. You’re the only one here telling people they’re making wrong choices. I’m reminded of the transition from carburetors to fuel injection, the old timers screamed about losing the ability to fine tune their engine performance, losing control, etc. But this is a natural evolution, technology is abstracted, becomes less complex and more powerful. You lose certain freedoms along the way but you gain other freedoms. I understand why you are afraid, but you must understand this future is inevitable.

          4. My criticism is reserved for Apple and their defenders, not people’s choices. Most people don’t even know what they’re not getting, you do. I expect more from you.

          5. You’re still the only one pissing and moaning about people who make choices that you don’t agree with. Maybe, just maybe, people who are just as smart and capable as you, are actually making different choices for good reasons. I understand you don’t agree with those choices. That’s your problem. Thank goodness you can’t possibly have any impact on the inevitable future of abstraction and simplification. Enjoy your BMW.

          6. You don’t get it, I’m pissing and moaning at companies that make products I don’t agree with (and their defenders). And I’m far from the only one, just vocal about it.
            I will avoid abstraction and simplification if it limits me. If that’s the future, the future sucks.

          7. Your BMW is the result of abstraction and simplification. As I said, enjoy it.

          8. My BMW also lets me go on any road, not just pre-approved ones.
            It also let’s me listen to any radio station I choose, put anyone’s tires on, and get gas from any station I like.

          9. I can go anywhere on the information superhighway I want with my iOS device, thanks (buh buh buh Flash! oy). You trot out this tired argument every time. It doesn’t change the fact that your BMW is the result of abstraction and simplification. So if you think that sucks, you better take it back to the dealer. And while you’re at the dealer, go through your warranty. You’re not as free as you think re: what you can do with your BMW. You have enough freedom, but you can’t do anything you like, that’s simply false. You are indeed limited. In order to have a BMW you gave up some freedoms but you gained others. That’s how it works. Welcome to the future.

          10. One is all I need. But how about Java? How about VRML? What about all the science plugins. Virtual walk throughs? What about Oculus VR on even the mighty Mac Pro? Blu-Ray?

            It’s good for you it suffices, it not need suffice for everyone. Remember, that’s personal.

            Edit: I gave up exactly zero freedoms over any vehicle of my BMW type (never mind class). That’s ridiculous.

          11. Edge cases don’t prove anything. I can find edge cases for any device. You’re dancing away from the issue. You’re trying to impose your idea of computing, your choices, on others. That isn’t cool. Apple gear is a better choice for me, it affords me more freedom, just in a different way than you want. That’s fine. You’re free to choose. But you seriously need to stop telling people that their choices are wrong. Of course now that I’ve pointed that out you’re using different language, “products I don’t agree with” and so on.

            “I gave up exactly zero freedoms over any vehicle of my BMW type (never mind class). That’s ridiculous.”

            I’ll give you a pass on this since you clearly don’t know that much about cars and how locked down they’ve become over time. You only think you’ve given up zero freedoms because you aren’t aware of the freedoms that were long gone by the time you bought a car. As I’ve said a few times, this is how abstraction and simplification works, you lose some freedoms and gain others.

          12. No one, but no one is critical of people’s choices more than Apple fans. You would have more credibility if you were critical of that cross section of your fellow fans. You can start at Macdailynews if you need directions.

            As for you and I, it is your position that restricts mine. I’m live and let live, you’re “Apple knows best”, as if these were mutually exclusive. I cannot complicate my iOS device even if I want to, you insist I either not want to, or that’s how it should be. I resent your simplicity imposing on my freedom, my freedom doesn’t impact your personal simplicity. No one forces you to change anything out of the box. You can stay in the exact same box you’re in now.

          13. I’m not in a box. It is you who imagines that others are in boxes when they are not (because they’re not using computers the way you think they should). As I’ve said before, Apple gear affords me more freedom, not less. Your problem is you can’t imagine that I use computing devices in a different way than you and have different needs and wants when it comes to computing. You really do have a narrow view of how computers MUST be used. THESE devices are NOT PCs. THOSE devices ARE. The USER MUST etc etc. Please tell me again who is imposing their views? It isn’t me.

            I have no problem with your choices, other than your choice to tell me what is good or bad for me re: computing devices. I’m easily as smart and capable as you, and I want different things from my devices. I know everything you hate about Apple, and I’m choosing Apple devices *because* of many of the reasons you don’t think Apple is a good choice. You resent simplicity. That’s fine. I seek simplicity. Is that really too hard for you to understand?

            As for edge cases, they’re a logical fallacy. Edge cases don’t prove an argument, at all. Edge cases are what they are, edge cases. They certainly aren’t any kind of formal quality assurance testing.

            If you want to use edge cases, then your BMW is a piece of crap. You should have purchased a much more flexible and capable vehicle. See how dumb that is? The BMW does the jobs-to-be-done you need, so you should buy it, use it, and enjoy it.

            Use what you need, but don’t tell others what they need.

          14. It doesn’t offend me if you think my BMW is a piece of crap. I don’t take that personally. In some ways (cup holders, cabin layout) it is.

          15. Your BMW is not a piece of crap, it delivers what you need and want, and probably very well. But if we use edge cases to prove arguments then we must conclude that your BMW is indeed a piece of crap. The point is we should not use edge cases to prove arguments. A Ford F150 SuperCab can seat five comfortably and six if you need to. It can drive everywhere your BMW can, it can haul much more, tow much more, drive on roads your BMW cannot (and through fields, off road), and I can do more with it than your BMW. From a practical utility perspective it is a more capable and flexible vehicle. But it is not a BMW and there are jobs-to-be-done that you need and want that the Ford F150 will not deliver nearly as well. That’s fine. I could never own a BMW, I would always be running into the limitations of that vehicle. But this isn’t true for you, your use/needs/wants do not run into the limitations of the BMW, so it’s a good choice for you.

            As I said, use what you need, and more importantly don’t tell others what they need.

          16. It is Apple who is imposing and telling ALL users, not just you, what they need on machines that are otherwise capable. They are an imposed IT department over ALL their users property, not just yours. This leads to censorship.

            You’ve made the argument in the past that it’s beneficial to me if Apple is my IT department, over doing things myself. While I understand your concept, who’s decision is that? In or out is insufficient. If I accept your argument, and indeed accept the economic reality that I “hire” Apple as my IT department, then should my hire not do what “I” tell them to do?

            Edit: “As I said, use what you need, and more importantly don’t tell others what they need.”

            I don’t. Just don’t hold me back. It’s your position that tells me what I need.

          17. No, you are the one imposing one specific view of computing on others. Perhaps you’ve just realized how wrong that is, and now you’re trying to argue that you’re not doing it, but you are doing exactly that.

            Apple is clearly not beneficial for you, but Apple is beneficial for me. Apple affords me more freedom, I am less limited, I have more power. But that is what is true for me (and many others). Just as your BMW would be terribly limiting for me, it is not limiting for you. Cars have progressed to the point that we no longer have silly arguments about how ‘open’ a vehicle is, how easy it is for the user to modify it or work on it. We’re well beyond that now. People just buy the vehicle that fits their needs. They aren’t considering whether or not they can swap the engine out, tinker with a carburetor, or jack it up and put giant tires on it. But we’re still stuck in a transition stage with computing where we do still have these kinds of silly ideological discussions.

            “If I accept your argument, and indeed accept the economic reality that I “hire” Apple as my IT department, then should my hire not do what “I” tell them to do?”

            You are so far away from understanding why people choose Apple. It does seem that it is impossible for you to accept that Apple is the best choice for many people.

          18. I’ve said this before. Apple is liberating in the sense of raising the average. Ease of use does empower many users. When capability is withheld, then it’s an issue for those that know what they are doing. It need not be this way.

            In that sense, you’re right that it’s not for me. Since it’s not for me, I state my reasons. When I hear that iOS devices are PCs, then I speak up. When censorship is defended (Wiley), as a positive no less, I speak up. When my desktops can’t be upgraded by me, I speak up. These are shortcomings, and I will continue to pound these shortcomings.

          19. “When capability is withheld, then it’s an issue for those that know what they are doing.”

            I know what I’m doing and I don’t find this statement to be true. Your silly ideological arguments are full of logical fallacies.

            Apple is liberating and empowering in a lot more ways than you’ve ever talked about. But of course you only understand Apple through the lens of your personal needs and wants, so your vision is clouded.

            It is unlikely you’ll ever truly understand or accept why Apple is the better choice for a very large number of people. And this choice doesn’t mean these people don’t know what they’re doing, aren’t ‘power users’, are limited, are less aware than you, and so on. It just means they made a different choice and they don’t care about the things *you* think they should care about.

      3. More important that Apple has always, at least since 1997, stuck to thorough and careful running of its business. AOL was like that in the beginning, but was never very focused after the Time Warner merger.

        1. Yes, the TW merger was the kiss of death for them, but it was great for the shareholders. Proof that money alone is not the metric of a good company for the consumer.

  2. Everyone talks about the question of what’s going to happen to AOL’s publishing arm, but what about those dial-up subscribers, who still, even now, constitutes just shy of 1/3 of AOL’s revenue (and probably a much larger share of its profits)?

    1. I suppose they will while they can. It’s certainly an easy practice for Verizon. But I image they’ll eventually try to move it into Verizon services.

      1. A lot of those dialup customers are on dialup because they don’t have access to affordable broadband where they live. I expect it’ll be a cold day in hell before Verizon spends one penny expanding their infrastructure to enable those dialup customers to get access to Verizon’s broadband services

  3. Hey, Steve: some of us on the internet before AOL opened the gates have a very sour taste in our mouths to this day due to what they did. See: Enternal September. Yes, these services introducing the ‘net was a pivotal move for its consumerization, but it wasn’t all wine and roses in those days!

    And let’s mention AOL’s grandparents by name: Quantum Link for the Commodore 64 (arguably, the big daddy whose revenue funded AOL), PC-Link, and AppleLink.

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