The following text is copyright 1996 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

A lesson almost learned

With great fanfare complete with mention on prime time news shows and prominent coverage in the daily newspapers, America Online (AOL) is trying to reinvent itself. They seem to be basically on a good path but there is a small sign that they may still not get it.

AOL is perhaps best known to non-subscribers for its policy of aggressively distributing startup diskettes to all creation. A policy that reminds me of the article "National Geographic, the Doomsday Machine" in The Journal of Irreproducible Results > which claimed that North America was about to sink into the sea under the accumulated load of old copies of National Geographic stored in countless attics and basements.

For those of you who have not been following this part of the Internet business, AOL is no 98 pound weakling. It had total revenues of over a billion dollars in the year ending June 30, 1996, has over 6 million "members" (inclusive jargon meaning customers), 140,000 modems in 470 cities around the world, and 5,300 employees. (see An aside, their web site claims that nearly 30% of Internet traffic comes from AOL. Since there is no known way to measure the current level of traffic on the many thousands of networks that make up the global Internet this is at best a marketing WAG.

AOL started life (if that is what one calls corporate existence) as a connections-to-content provider. This was the same type of service offering a number of other businesses started with, Prodigy and Compuserve being examples. The thought that anyone might want to get to resources that were not local to such a provider was a scary concept quickly dismissed, since the Internet was that evil unmanaged and unmanageable force from the dark side (To such a company, the availability of free information was clearly evil.)

It took a while but these companies started to realize that the content they could provide was minute compared to that becoming available on the developing World Wide Web so they reluctantly started opening portals to the Net. But they still felt that the Net was extra, the basic value being in their own material. The just announced AOL reorganization almost turns this attitude around. AOL now offers flat rate access to its content for people who already have Internet access.

A couple of months ago I tried out AOL. I was looking for good basic dial-up Internet access and was interested in addition in some of their content. It took me a few hours to get the thing running, most of the time was waiting for required components to be downloaded. (Why not put more on the diskette?) After all of that I found out they did not support telnet-based access to the Internet and I gave up.

The new offerings seem to be heading in the right direction but there was one detail in the announcement that has me worried that they are not quite on the ball yet. They said that the new content access service was for those with their own Net access "particularly at school or work." They are still living in the past. Net access is not just from school and work anymore.

disclaimer: Harvard does provide extensive Internet connectivity to its students but has no opinion of AOL's cluefulness.