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10/5/2006
03:32 PM
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The Saga Of America Online

Everybody has an AOL story. Mine took place several years ago, when my parents were still on a dial-up connection and used AOL as their main conduit to e-mail and the Web. My father realized he needed to make an important call and signed off. However, AOL, as was its habit, took that opportunity to do a major upgrade (without, of course, asking whether it was convenient to do so). After waiting for several minutes, and with no idea how long the upgrade was going to take, my father finally broke

Everybody has an AOL story. Mine took place several years ago, when my parents were still on a dial-up connection and used AOL as their main conduit to e-mail and the Web. My father realized he needed to make an important call and signed off. However, AOL, as was its habit, took that opportunity to do a major upgrade (without, of course, asking whether it was convenient to do so). After waiting for several minutes, and with no idea how long the upgrade was going to take, my father finally broke the connection.

It took about a week to get his computer working again.AOL (formerly known as America Online) has the kind of love-hate relationship with computer enthusiasts that's only rivaled by the Microsoft/Apple/Linux slugfest. I know tech analysts who have argued for hours with their clients, trying in vain to get them to give up their dependence on the AOL security blanket. And in a way, I can understand what the problem is--after all, I know a manual transmission is a lot more efficient than an automatic, but I've yet to learn how to drive with one.

In her new article "The Rise And Fall (And Rise?) Of AOL," Jennifer Bosavage offers a rundown of AOL's checkered history as the savior and the bane of thousands of Internet denizens. I have to admit that my experience runs the gamut--the first time I played with America Online was back in 1991, when it was first introduced to PC users via a new and soon-to-be-extinct DOS user interface called GeoWorks. At the time, I was eager to try the service--I had heard nothing but good things from Apple users who were already there, who said it added a lot of neat new stuff to the text-based Internet conversations I was used to.

However, it wasn't long after the introduction of a Windows version that AOL became a joke among those who knew the difference between a browser and a word processor. There were jokes about the floppy disks that seemed to be included with every magazine, at every supermarket cash register, and in every mailbox (although I have to admit, all those extra 3.5-inch floppies came in handy). There were jokes about the way each install reset all your file associations and dug its heels into your Registry. And there were jokes about the users of AOL, who were assumed (not without some basis) to be totally unlearned in the culture and etiquette of online communications.

AOL shrugged at the ridicule (or at least, it seemed to) and stuck to its guns, only relenting slightly when it stopped filtering the Web on behalf of its users and incorporated a real browser into its software. It wasn't until this year that the company finally realized that most users--especially those who had grown up with the Internet--no longer needed to pay for training wheels. AOL announced it was no longer charging for anything except its broadband connection. It was free at last.

The latest strategy seems to be to remake itself into a family-friendly social networking service via sites such as AIM Pages and the KOL Channel for kids. And it just introduced a brand new interface for its users called OpenRide--and while I haven't had a chance to try it out for more than an hour or two, its strategy of dividing the interface into quadrants (for multimedia, e-mail, IM, and the Web) and pushing forward the quadrant you want to use at that moment looks really interesting.

AOL has rested on its laurels for way too long. The company's new strategy of actually trying to be creative and innovative is probably too little too late. But it will be fun to see what happens next.

Do you have your own AOL story? Do you think AOL is a dinosaur slowly sinking into its last mudhole, or a phoenix rising from the ashes? (Or are my animal metaphors getting as irritating as AOL's old interface?) Let us know.

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