AOL goes free

AOL logos old and new AOL seems almost as old as the Internet itself. For millions of Americans, myself included, America Online provided our first experience with the World Wide Web. I remember asking my parents to get a subscription to AOL after we got our first Internet-capable computer. They wisely said no; AOL billed by the minute back then, something almost unheard of nowadays. I remember when AOL went to a $20 per month flat fee for dial-up Internet access, and its membership exploded. Suddenly you had to try several times to sign on because it was so busy, and the company couldn’t add new dial-up numbers fast enough to keep up with the demand. In its heyday, AOL was a household name. Its ubiquitous “You’ve Got Mail” sign-on greeting even inspired a movie and it was the first to provide instant messenger service to the public.

Somewhere along the line the tide of public opinion began to turn against the company. Dial-up wasn’t cool anymore. Certainly by 1999 the tech elite had already eschewed the dial-up service in favor of higher speeds. Those CD’s that arrived weekly in the mail became something of a nuisance. I once used a whole spindle of them as shooting targets in college. The Internet was changing rapidly at that point, and most of us were outgrowing the company that introduced us to the Web. When AOL merged with Time Warner in 2001, it was really the last in a long line of bad ideas. It happened just as the Dot Com bubble was bursting, and they lost about $200 billion in shareholder value. AOL began to lose a lot of its market share as people switched to broadband. It still offered AOL email accounts and services for broadband subscribers, but it wasn’t making as much money.

This morning Time Warner announced that its AOL division was going to switch things up a bit. AOL will no longer charge for its broadband services. They were losing those customers already, so why not give the service away and keep all the customers they can? The company will be switching to more ad-based revenue to stay profitable. And while the company will still provide dial-up service, it won’t be marketing it anymore. That means no more AOL CD’s in your mailbox.

I think this is probably a good idea for AOL. They were yesterday’s Internet, and they needed a big change to stay relevant. They are starting to offer some cool things online, such as In2TV, a high-quality archive of popular television shows. And AOL now offers a free local phone number for instant messenger users that works with its popular instant messenger program. I made fun of AOL as much as the next nerd back in their lame days, but I would like to see a fresh, relevant AOL find a niche in online marketing. The company is a living piece of the history of the Internet, and after all, it’s important to respect your elders.

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