Is Facebook Just An Upgraded Version Of AOL?

Facebook has been making the news nearly every week with the launch of a new or updated feature or service offering. The more I look at Facebook, the more it reminds me of what AOL offered in the early-90s.

Allen Stern, Contributor

February 10, 2010

4 Min Read

Facebook has been making the news nearly every week with the launch of a new or updated feature or service offering. The more I look at Facebook, the more it reminds me of what AOL offered in the early-90s.Let's start this journey by taking a ride back in time. Some of you are too young to remember the Internet of the early 90s. Back then one of the most popular ways to get "online" was to use AOL. This was the popular online service that came via disks you received in the mail. Prodigy and Compuserve were on their way out and this new service AOL was the darling of the time. I went to college in a small town in upstate New York which had no local number for AOL. I had to call to Albany to access AOL. And boy did I access AOL. One of my first months I received a phone bill for over $500 in long-distance charges (where was Vonage back then?!?) and that didn't even include the AOL access fees. I still use the same username on AOL today that I originally registered way back then.

AOL was exciting - you could read news, send and receive email, play games, IM chat with friends, go into chat rooms based around topics, search for content, listen to music, send eCards, customize the home page to suit your preferences and a variety of other online tasks. In later versions of the AOL desktop, a Web browser was included and other "partners" were added to allow for additional content and, what I will call, applications.

It sure does seem that the more we try to move the Internet forward, the more things seem to copy the old. So with that said, allow me to introduce you to the next version of AOL... AOL 2.0... otherwise known as Facebook.

Read the above paragraph that begins with "AOL was exciting" and replace AOL with Facebook. Seem similar? Seem to be identical?

Facebook has news, buddies, chat/IM, games, video, photos and when you include their developer network you get pretty dang close to what AOL offered. I'm not going to run down every single feature in both services but if you were to create a matrix, the checkmarks would overlap pretty closely. One difference is the aggregated "feed" that Facebook offers which allows you to see what your friends (or marketing contacts) are up to.

Sure Facebook allows us to connect at higher speeds than an overclocked 28.8 baud modem, but if you look closely, I can see the little yellow running man inside the Facebook logo. I'd argue that if AOL had the connection speeds and coverage that Facebook benefits from today, AOL would have been much larger.

I've wondered if Facebook will eventually launch a branded phone similar to Google's launch of the Nexus One smartphone. And there is a lot of chatter about the potential of Facebook to create a web browser. AOL had a web browser as well.

Facebook likes to say that they are open but I guess by their definition AOL was just as open in the mid-90s. One difference between the companies is in the way they generated revenue. AOL charged a service fee and Facebook is using ads and Facebook also told me tonight that Heinz Ketchup wants me to share my Ketchup stories (I never use Ketchup) and that two of my Facebook friends are "Fans" of Heinz Ketchup.

Facebook has two major advantages over AOL that will help Facebook remain important for a long-period of time. First, they are given the "pipe" for free. That is, people connect to Facebook using their own connections while AOL had to supply their own dial-in lines. Second, Facebook has the advantage that more people are connected to the Web than had computers in the early 1990s. This connectivity helps Facebook to continue to add more new users each week.

Let's look at some recent posts from around the Web - just replace Facebook as you read the posts with AOL and replace any mentions of Obama with Clinton.

  • Steve Rubel says that Facebook will centralize the social web. Isn't that exactly what AOL did in the early-to-mid 90s?

  • Facebook is the largest newsreader says Hitwise. Wasn't AOL the largest online newsreader?

  • Facebook is apparently working on an internal email service. Along with many others, I said this would be coming. AOL had (and still has) an email service as well. So now people will tell you to email blueriver149@facebook instead of blueriver149@aol.

So is Facebook really just a refurbished version of the old AOL?

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