Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | AOL is dead, long live AOL
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AOL is dead, long live AOL

Truly, it’s the end of an era.

My first online job, way back in 1996, was as Content Editor of AOL’s Digital City Denver. It was a great time to be working on the Internet — there was a palpable sense of excitement. Everything was new, and everything was possible.

Never mind that AOL wasn’t exactly the “Internet” (many ‘Net folks pooh-poohed AOL even then), we were all missonaries preaching the online faith. Like the other handful of online companies at the time, we spent more than half of our long days meeting with potential partners, advertisers and content providers, as well as anyone who would spend the time to listen, to tell them about the Internet and how it would change their lives.

Of course, things bogged down pretty quickly. AOL was in the throes of growing pains, and boy, did it hurt! The company went from hitting its first big milestone when I started — five million subscribers — to 10 million, and within a year had hit 20 million. The growth spurt caused all sorts of infrastructure problems, no the least of which was that members couldn’t log onto AOL without being bumped offline because of the crunch in the bandwidth.

At one point, I was personally answering several hundred e-mails a day from angry members, many of them threatening not only to sue AOL, but also Digital City Denver, and me personally. Even then, that’s how important the Web was becoming to people’s everyday lives.

The company survived the growing pains by installing thousands of new modems in every market, even as it continued sending out those ubiquitous signup disks with the free trial hours. And, AOL went on to merge with Time-Warner and made zillions of bucks for the top brass (not me).

I also moved on, and eventually stopped using AOL except for its Instant Messenger. The company’s subscriber base never grew too much more than when I left, and has been steadily shrinking ever since, thanks to the increasing sophistication of even “newbie” Web surfers, whom had been AOL’s bread and butter. Plus, too many companies now offer too many serves for free, such as Yahoo and Google.
Last week, AOL formally announced it would offer its services for free, and depend on advertising for revenues. It also is laying off thousands of employees, primarily in its customer department.

It remains to be seen how AOL will evolve in the new age of the Internet. I don’t think they had a choice but to try this drastic move. I applaud the company for having the cojones to do this, even if it was out of desperation.

In a way, I hope the succeed and evolve into a new kind of company. As I said in this commentary from 2001, I wouldn’t have a online job if it weren’t for AOL, and arguably, the Internet wouldn’t be such a huge part of so many people’s everyday lives without the company’s ability to introduce non-techies to the wonders of the World Wide Web.

I said it then, and I’ll say it today: AOL offered the Internet with training wheels, and although geeks and Net early adopters spat that phrase out with disdain, that’s exactly what most people needed to start their wobbly journey on the Internet.