AOL was not the Internet. In the early days, the late 80’s and early 90’s, they sold it to you as such, but it wasn’t. You could get access to Usenet, and eventually to the larger Internet, but that’s another story. Still, using the online service could be a fun experience and perhaps no part of the service outside of the iconic “You’ve Got Mail” sound was more popular than IM. Before there were Twitter followers and Facebook “friends,” if you were on AOL, you had your buddy list. Unless you used IRC or ICQ, bulletin boards, or some type of instant chat via a Unix system, chances are, you used AOL. If you weren’t a techie, you almost certainly used AOL.
Still, the presence of services like IRC or ICQ became a problem for AOL. Before then, if you were an AOL user, you paid for that privilege. AOL IM was part of AOL’s “walled garden,” its own content and subservices inside of the service. IRC and ICQ allowed users to chat with anybody on the Internet. Eventually, the noise from both AOL users and non-users to bridge to the Internet became too loud to ignore and in 1997, AOL opened up its IM service in the form of AOL Instant Messenger, or, AIM.
Now, people on the Internet could chat with paying AOL customers. Despite becoming the most popular chat service on the web over its rivals Yahoo!’s Pager (Messenger) and eventually, Microsoft, this represented a subtle shift for AOL, as they were essentially hosting non-paying users in their service (AOL would also buy ICQ in 1998). AOL’s business model still involved people paying primarily for access to information and experiences hosted on their servers. They were good at it as they still had tens of millions of paying subscribers, too, by the late 1990’s, let alone AIM users. By 2000, AOL would merge with Time Warner, as the latter had seen the future and wanted to move into the online world, the former, into media.
AIM soldiered on, even as its parent company declined in status, becoming more or less a division within Time Warner within a couple of years. AOL would finally shift the whole company towards a more open service, away from their “walled garden” in the next several years, even opening up AOL Mail to non-paying users. They’d also add XDrive, an online backup service, to their offerings. None of it stemmed the tide away from AOL.
AIM itself wasn’t immune to shifts in technology and how people organized themselves online. AIM itself would begin to fall away as a service as people would begin to move to SMS messaging and more importantly, social networking sites and Google Chat, itself released in 2011. And only now in 2017 is AOL shutting down AIM.
If I could have projected my 15, 20, or 25 year old self out to now, I would have recognized AOL, but under the name Facebook. Stick a blog with comments onto an AOL/AIM profile and make the whole service — groups, messenger, AOL Hometown/Journal, business listings, etc — available to anyone and not just paid users and you have back then, a proto-Facebook service.
I might recognize AOL as Box.com, Dropbox or Google Drive. Only Box.com was around at the same time as XDrive.
I might even see it as Hulu. AOL, through its merger with Time Warner could have lead streaming, given how much content it controlled or nominally had access to, with all the shows from HBO, TNT, and the other Time Warner-owned networks under its umbrella by 2000.
Yet, it wasn’t meant to be.
AOL, for whatever reason, never figured out in AIM’s heyday what organizations like Facebook seemed to know when they launched: in the coming era, users weren’t necessarily the customers, but they were often the product. AOL insisted on keeping paid subscribers long after they should have shifted to the attention-based model we see today. Google, Facebook, and others raced by and left AOL reeling. They would eventually open up more of the service and only charge for Internet access, but by then, things were too far gone.
And with respect to the kind of content AOL should have monetized, by the time that Netflix and Hulu came around, AOL was well depreciated from its former self.
AOL isn’t the only tech company that’s held onto its buggy whips as the rest of the industry moves towards the combustion engine.
Microsoft ignored mobile. It’s not even a player in that space. They had enough time to put together Office 365 and improved Sharepoint and OneDrive enough before Google Drive/GSpace could become a truly viable product. They’ll still be a player in cloud in the corporate space going forward. They were also able to take enough cues from Apple (design) and Google (transitioning to a leaner, more cloud-focused OS) to keep Windows 10 relevant. Unfortunately for AOL, they had the pieces (I didn’t even mention AOL Music or AOL photos), but never could put them together at the right time in the right ways.
As I get ready to let go of my old Buddy List of over 100 people, I do have memories like I’ve seen expressed on Twitter today. I’ve either met or kept up with a lot of people on AOL and AIM through the years. Old girlfriends. My current girlfriend. Writers. Early bloggers and online journalers (from the Open Diary days, wow that was so long ago, and maybe a few from BlackPlanet, too). Some moved to G-Chat with me. Some are long gone from my life. Some even dated back to when I was in high school. I’m sure I shared my grief over my mother’s death over AIM. My giddiness when the Ravens won Super Bowl 35. And many other moments and emotions between in days long passed.
I’m also reminded that in tech, tools come and go. I’ve used WordStar, ClarisWorks, WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, and Libre Office to do the same thing. ClarisWorks, Pagemaker, and Publisher to do some of the same things. AOL, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Mesesenger (Windows Live Messenger), and Google Talk (Google Chat/Hangouts) to do the same thing. And on and on. Something else may eventually succeed Twitter and Facebook after some change that the future managers there didn’t see coming. At one time, people thought AOL was the Internet and then the Internet passed it by. Today, many people think Facebook is the Internet. What will people think the Internet is in 20 years?
That just like the story in Acres of Gold, the answers are sometimes right under your feet. AOL had the pieces of this part of the future in its control and now all of those tools are have been and continue to be realized by other groups. Yet, they held onto the world as it was, for too long, and when the world moved on, they couldn’t catch up. Creativity, openness to new ideas, and the willingness to take a few risks are the way forward. The former world can pass away so quickly these days, it’s often hard to hold onto. Especially in tech with so many people sitting behind compilers these days, probably far more than the first time I ever sat in front of a C compiler back when AOL was the Internet.
Also published on Medium.