AOL and Other Online Services
In my early days of computing, I logged on to Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) to download files and participate in forum discussions. The BBSes I logged into were free, but they were hard to use, overloaded, and limited to my local area code. By the early-to-mid 1990s, I convinced my parents to pay for an online service, specifically America Online (AOL). But before we get to my personal experiences with getting online in the 1990s, let’s look at the history of online services in general.
The first big online service was CompuServe. Started by an insurance company to make the best use of time-sharing mainframes, it was bought by tax giant H&R Block in 1980 and turned into a full-fledged online service. By pricing the connection rates higher in the daytime, H&R Block encouraged users to log on in the evenings, when their mainframes weren’t being used to calculate tax returns. However, even the “low” evening prices were exorbitant by modern standards, pricing families like mine out of the market. This trend that would continue throughout the 1980s.
A Proliferation of Online Services
Home computers really took off in the 1980s, and while this was the golden age of BBSes, commercial online services started to flourish as well. Besides CompuServe, there was The Source, Delphi, GEnie, and many smaller players. Like the computers they ran on, these services were largely text-based, but toward the latter part of the decade, this started to change. A new graphical service named Prodigy came to the forefront, along with a startup known as Quantum Link. CompuServe added a graphical interface as well, while The Source and other text-based services languished and died. In 1991, Quantum Link became known as AOL, and the golden age of online services took off.
Over the next couple of years, AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe competed for market domination. Delphi and GEnie tried to keep up with their own graphical interfaces, but eventually lost out to the Big Three. Meanwhile, Apple and Microsoft were aiming for the online service market as well. Apple, then in the Dark Ages of Michael Spindler’s leadership, started a service called eWorld. This was actually AOL with a specialized Apple interface. It was the first paid online service my family got, and it was pretty much a ghost town. Apple soon shut it down, with AOL absorbing its user base.
Microsoft also made a play for its piece of the pie with The Microsoft Network (MSN). A trial version was included with Windows 95, and it soon become a major competitor on the online service market, but by the time it came out, AOL was on its way to market dominance, and by Microsoft standards, it was an overall failure.
The Age of AOL
By the mid-1990s, AOL was the king of online connectivity, vastly outstripping Prodigy, CompuServe, and MSN. This is the service I remember fondly (and not so fondly). AOL became famous for its “Welcome” and “You’ve got mail!” sounds, even inspiring a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The AOL of this era was (in)famous for sending out disks with the promise of umpteen free hours of connectivity. I liked the floppy disks they sent out in the earlier part of the decade, which I could reformat and use for my own files. Later, they switched to CD-ROMS, which can be quite collectible nowadays. But at the time, I just nuked them in the microwave. (What can I say? I was a teenager.)
In 1996, AOL dropped the hourly rates and moved to a flat monthly fee. The following year, they bought CompuServe from H&R Block. Meanwhile, Prodigy retooled itself as an Internet Service Provider, eventually getting rid of its proprietary interface, while MSN became an Internet porthole much like Yahoo. By the late 1990s, AOL’s main competitor wasn’t Prodigy or MSN, but the Internet itself.
The Fall of AOL
At first AOL was a self-contained service, but as the Internet grew in popularity, AOL had no choice but to open up its walled garden. Instead of providing an alternative to the Internet, they started providing an enriched Internet experience. But the Internet grew faster than anyone could imagine, and AOL could barely keep up.
AOL’s integrated browser didn’t work perfectly with changing standards, so they bought Netscape, the maker of the most popular web browser. But still they were hemorrhaging customers. To fight this, they sent out even more CDs with even more free trials. And they made it damn near impossible to cancel the service, offering all kinds of discounts to keep you for a few more months. I distinctly remember my dad and I canceling AOL on several occasions, only to get caught back in the net and do it all over again. But all of this was for naught. Even when they kept customers, the servers got overloaded and it took forever to log in. All the free months of service were useless to people who couldn’t even get a connection.
The Rise of the World Wide Web
Broadband internet started to take off at the turn of the century. I remember using it in college and I was instantly hooked. No longer did I need to dial up a number and log in to a service. I could simply leave my computer on and wait for emails and chats to roll in. In the end, AOL merged with Time Warner and moved into becoming a media company. Their online service was surpassed by the World Wide Web, and even their Netscape browser was crushed by Internet Explorer. It was the end of an era, but by the time it happened, I was ready for the next big thing. The Internet was far better than anything AOL or CompuServe could provide, and except for this bit of modern-day nostalgia, I’ve never looked back. Propriety online services were relegated to the dust bin of history, right where they belong.