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Hot on the Web

Can AOL reinvent itself?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 12, 2009
(Issue 2724, Linux Update)

Now that Time-Warner has announced it is going to spin off AOL into a separate entity, ending one of the great upstart-gone-bust tales in corporate history, the question becomes whether AOL (which bought Time-Warner in 2001 when AOL's fortunes were at their peak) can even survive.

The irony here (outside of the irony of Time-Warner, which was purchased by AOL, spinning off its once-parent company) is that at a time when MySpace and Facebook are two of the most popular Web sites in the world, a company that pioneered the concept of an online social network is searching for a successful business plan.

The whole business model of AOL in the 1990s was as a safe, family-friendly environment where parents could trust that their children would be safe.

AOL once stood for America Online, and in the mid-1990s it was the most poplar online destination by far. In a bit of further irony, some of the earliest criticism of AOL was for trying to be a comprehensive one-stop online portal: You could check e-mail, play games, browse the news, interact with your friends.

This all-in-one approach led to the second major firestorm of media criticism against AOL: That it wasn't fully integrated into the Internet, at least not soon enough to satisfy the company's critics.

When the World Wide Web began to grow in popularity in the mid-'90s, AOL began offering limited access to the 'Net via it's own dial-up interface. AOL subscribers didn't get a full gateway to the Web, but using AOL's proprietary browser, they could visit much of the Web (albeit not porn sites or online gambling halls, consistent with AOL's family-friendly business model).

But AOL's roots go back to the early 1980s, when there was no public Internet to compete against or integrate with. When AOL began life – first as a dial-up download service for the Atari 2600 game console and then, after its first reinvention in 1985, as the Quantum Link dial-up service for Commodore 64s – what we know as the Internet was still the DARPAnet, a closed research network reserved exclusively for the government and select universities.

In fact, Q-Link, as it was popularly known, was competing more with free dial-up bulletin board systems, or BBSs, than it was with anything like the Internet.

By the late 1980s, America Online was supporting Windows, Mac and other popular platforms, and was in full-blown competition with other subscription online services like CompuServe, Prodigy and Genie.

All of them resembled today's Facebook or MySpace websites than they did anything else available back then.

As mentioned, all of these dial-up subscriber services marketed themselves as online communities more than a service or product. You went online to hang out – not merely to play a game, download shareware or demo software or get e-mail.

Sociologists at the time were writing articles on the appearance of what they called "virtual" communities – social circles of people who only knew each other via their online interactions.

The Web's time lag

What's interesting in all this is that while free local dial-up BBSs (basically a smaller, slower version of CompuServe, AOL or Prodigy running on someone's personal computer at home, and accessed by dialing the phone number of their modem, which was generally posted on other BBSs in an early form of viral marketing) emulated the online-community model of the subscription services, when the first Web sites appeared in the early '90s, technical issues led to most Web sites being static destinations: You went there and read, viewed or listened to the files they had posted there – but generally had little to no interaction with other visitors to that site.

The emphasis on Web sites for the first 15 years of the Web was on updating content to lure visitors back for repeat visits. It's only in the least few years that we're seeing widescale adoption of feedback and interactivity tools on Web sites.

Today, we expect Web sites to allow us to post comments to static content, and increasingly to offer some forums where we can engage in longer conversations.

Both MySpace and Facebook allow us to have our own private e-mail (rather like AOL and CompuServe once did) that only works on that site – and yet, despite the lack of universal Internet e-mail functionality, both MySpace and Facebook are hugely popular.

More than a revolution in Web functionality, both MySpace and Facebook seem to be the logical Web-based extension of AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, Genie and all those hundreds of thousands of dial-up BBSs that we thought the Web would turn out to be.

We just didn't know it was going to take 17, 18 years to create the same sort of online community that we'd gotten used to with dial-up.

AOL's future

Whether AOL can reposition itself again remains to be seen. But it's already successfully adapted from a dial-up destination to a dial-up Internet provider. Giving MySpace and Facebook a run for their money doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility.