AOL = alive online


Happy 25th birthday to America Online, the little Internet company that grew into a giant, then became little again.

Over the years I'm guessing I received at least two dozen invitations to join AOL. The first ones were accompanied by 3.5-inch diskettes (which aren't being made any more), then a series of compact discs holding the installation software users needed to get started. I found an AOL CD invitation last week while cleaning out a box in the garage. I pitched the disc, as I’d pitched so many others before. They’d have made quite a coaster collection if I’d saved them.

Many years ago at a conference I heard an AOL representative say the average AOL customer signed up after receiving his or her seventh disc. That's why I kept getting the invitations; AOL figured I'd eventually bite. I had a company-paid AOL dial-up account for about a year, using it as a backup way to access the Internet while traveling. I no longer have it, but still have my AOL Instant Messenger and e-mail accounts. I haven't used either one in many months.

At its peak AOL had 24 million subscribers. Today, the number is down to around 5 million, according to a story today on National Public Radio: (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127045793).

The demise of dial-up online access is the death knell for AOL as an Internet service provider, so the company is out to reinvent itself. Sort of like Madonna. You might call it “Modem meets Material Girl.” AOL professes to be in the content business now, hiring journalists to fill pages focusing on news, entertainment, business, sports and anything else folks might find interesting. But the company is trailing in the horse race that includes Yahoo, Google and Bing. Is fourth or fifth place worth the effort? Maybe.

The AOL-Time Warner merger in January 2000 is being called one of the worst business deals in history. The promise of creating a new model for a communications company fell flat. Here's a statement from a Time Warner press release, dated Jan. 10, 2000:

"The merger will combine Time Warner's vast array of world-class media, entertainment and news brands and its technologically advanced broadband delivery systems with America Online's extensive Internet franchises, technology and infrastructure, including the world's premier consumer online brands, the largest community in cyberspace, and unmatched e-commerce capabilities. AOL is on its own again, free to become something new."

Something happened to derail the dream. I think has to do with how the company missed the boat when it came to broadband delivery systems.

That AOL’s still ticking after 25 years is pretty amazing. In Internet time, that's more like 80 or 100 years.

Will AOL be around 25 years from today? It's anybody's guess.