Excerpts from PC Novice Article published in 1997

Despite Flaws, America Online Has Something For Everyone

In the battle of commercial online services, America Online has emerged as the winner. Fueled by a seemingly relentless mass marketing campaign to stuff every mailbox in the known universe and with one (or more) versions of its complimentary software, America Online (often referred to as AOL) has racked up more than 9 million subscribers and counting while subduing would-be challengers to its online throne.

The probable coup de grace occurred in September 1997 when AOL announced its plans to acquire CompuServe, its nearest, but floundering, online service competitor. If the $1.2 billion deal is approved by federal regulators, it will give AOL CompuServe’s 2.6 million subscribers.

The result? Sixty percent of Americans will access the Internet and its World Wide Web through America Online.

These financial matters might fascinate the world of big business, but what do they mean for you? Not much, except that AOL’s might makes for an attractive, easy, and generally inexpensive way to connect to the Internet, gain access to E-mail, and explore AOL’s vast array of proprietary content.

AOL’s Swell
Increasingly, online services, including America Online, provide access to the Internet. There lies the key advantage AOL provides over Internet service providers (ISPs): Not only do you get access to the Internet and E-mail as with an ISP, AOL also provides its own vast array of content, which is useful, easy to use and access, and appeals to every interest under the sun.

On top of these advantages, AOL’s popular pricing option is the same as most ISPs: $19.95 a month for unlimited use.

With all the hubbub about its business prowess, the direct-mail flood of its installation software, Microsoft-esque fears about its growing market domination, and legendary technical woes, America Online has become the top ISP and commercial online service for one commonsense reason: It’s a good product.

All of AOL’s content is easily accessible, highly organized, and attractively presented. And if you can type on a keyboard and operate a mouse, you have all the computer skills you need to use AOL. This ease of use makes America Online attractive to the online newbie, and that’s why AOL is happily counting its profits as its membership soars into the online stratosphere.

Because AOL’s phenomenal growth didn’t occur until recent years, it might be hard to believe that the first incarnation of AOL was first introduced in 1985. In those early days, the company was called Quantum Computer Services, and the service was called Q-Link, which was designed to be a network for Commodore business machines.

The service was repackaged over the years and became America Online in 1991, but it wasn’t until January 1993 that it gained widespread attention. That’s when AOL released its first software for Windows. The result was a quick escalation to 500,000 members by the end of the year, 1 million by August 1994, 2 million by early 1995, 4 million by late 1995, and 9 million by September 1997.

Today, AOL, which is based in Dulles, Va., has operations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and, most recently, Japan.

AOL’s Hell
This quick growth put a tremendous strain on AOL’s centralized computers, which often responded to subscribers’ logon requests with busy signals during peak-use hours.

Meanwhile, ISPs threatened the market niche of AOL and the commercial online services by dropping the cost for Internet access to about $20 a month. The burgeoning Internet and World Wide Web proved surprisingly popular to consumers, threatening to steal away potential subscribers.

AOL reacted to the changing marketplace by scrapping its costly per-hour charges in December 1996 for a flat rate of $19.95 for most users. The move worked in one aspect, attracting hundreds of thousands of new subscribers, but it also overwhelmed AOL’s computers, meaning busy signals and slow access for legions of irate customers.

AOL moved to stem customer anger—and lawsuits—by capping its membership at 8 million and offering some customers refunds and free credit as it worked to upgrade its computer network to better carry the load.

Throughout 1997, AOL has alleviated the problem in some areas, but AOL’s troubles have disillusioned many. Go to a search engine on the Web, type hate aol or aol sucks, and you can spend hours wallowing in the venom of card-carrying AOL haters who have posted their opinions on newsgroups or have created anti-AOL Web pages.

Some AOL rants are legitimate; others border on the same paranoia that follows Microsoft’s every move. If you can get past AOL’s shortcomings, you will discover an online service that’s designed for anyone who wants to explore the online world but is unsure about jumping onto the Internet without a little help.

If this describes you, you should consider becoming America Online member 9 million and one.

This article was first published in 1997 as part of PC Novice’s “Going Online” issue.