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America Online, often referred to as its initialism AOL, was a subscription-based online software suite with a walled-garden community that also offered access to the internet at large beginning in 1991. As of April 2013, AOL continues to offer subscription-based dial-up and high speed internet services as well as free desktop software that allows users to access webpages at the click of a button along with the embedded chat client AOL Instant Messenger.
The company that would become AOL Inc. was founded as Quantum Computer Services in 1985. The company worked with Apple Inc. on an online service called AppleLink Personal Edition, which Quantum wanted to distribute freely and bundled with new computers in order to reach as many people as possible. Apple did not agree with this method, leading the companies to part ways in 1989. That October, Quantum rereleased the program for use on Apple II computers under the name America Online.
In 1991, Steve Case became CEO of Quantum and officially changed the company’s name to America Online, Inc. AOL offered a graphical user interface (shown below), allowing users of any skill level to easily access features. Over the years, the service worked with a number of nonprofits, magazines, associations and institutions including the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Scholastic, National Public Radio, and the U.S. Department of Education to provide homework tutoring and other educational services for children and parents. In 1996, Black Bayou became the first chatroom-based role playing game to exist on AOL. The same year, the site switched from an hourly service fee to a monthly rate of $19.95, driving a large influx of new subscribers. Since the only service offered was through a phone connection, many people ended up canceling their accounts due to busy signals.
In January 2000, AOL was purchased by media corporation Time Warner. Six years later, the service officially became known as AOL and it was announced that they would be offering web-based email accounts for free. In 2007, more than 80% of paid subscribers had transitioned to the free products. By 2008, AOL began shutting down a number of services including photo hosting, web hosting and blog hosting. In 2009, Time Warner ened up spinning AOL off into its own digital media company. The following year, in December 2010, AOL chat rooms were shut down. As of February 2013, the AOL dial-up subscription service is still offered and accounts for approximately $500 million in profits for the company annually, more than the rest of the company makes combined.
At the height of its popularity in June 2001, AOL had more than 30 million subscribers across the globe. However, that number gradually declined to approximately 19 million in 2006 and less than 5 million in 2009. Despite its massive popularity, the service was often criticized for its policies as well as its years-long postal blast of promotional mailings.
Community Leader Lawsuit
Beginning in the 1990s, AOL used volunteer community leaders to monitor their chat rooms and message boards. In 1999, two of these volunteers, Brian Williams and Kelly Hallissey, filed a class action lawsuit seeking compensation for their work. This resulted in a complete reorganization of their volunteer system, as well as letting go all volunteers under 18. The suit was settled in February 2010 for $15 million dollars.
You’ve Got Mail
When logged in to the service, the arrival of a new message prompted a soundbyte of American voice over actor Elwood Edwards saying “You’ve Got Mail!” The verbal notification eventually became a catchphrase of its own, as it was voted the top quote of 1989 by TIME that year. The phrase was also used as the title of a 1998 romantic comedy film about two strangers who fall in love after a series of e-mail exchanges, unaware that they were actually real-life business competitors. The phrase is still closely associated with AOL and nostalgia for the heyday of its services.
AOL Promotional CDs
Throughout the 1990s, AOL distributed hundreds of thousands of promotional AOL floppy disks and CDs, offering hours of free service for new subscribers. The disks cost the company upwards of $300 million dollars over the years and at one point, caused all other CD production to be halted. The disks were highly criticized for their environmental impact and as early as October 1996, Usenet members were sharing ideas on how to destroy them. In 1997, computer software engineer Dave Dyer created a lit Christmas tree out of 66 AOL CDs. In August 2001, NoMoreAOLCDs.com launched, encouraging people to mail them their unwanted promo disks. Their initial goal was to gather 1 million of the disks and hand-deliver them back to AOL headquarters. By May 2003, they collected 179,245 disks. The project ceased on August 10th, 2007 after collecting 410,176 disks.
In 2002, Sparky Haufle launched AOLCollecting.com, both to show off his collection of AOL CDs as well as facilitating trades between other collectors. The following year, The AOL CD-ROM Museum was established, housing pictures of multiple people’s collections as well as separate exhibits highlighting the different types of disks issued. Well into 2005, collectors continued to share photos of their collections on forums.
The Eternal September occurred in September 1993 when AOL introduced Usenet access into their interface. Though September had previously been associated with an influx of newbies due to college freshman accessing newsgroups for the first time, the America Online access created an open door for their steadily increasing customers. The term was coined by Dave Fischer on January 26th, 1994 in a post on alt.folklore.computers:
“It’s moot now. September 1993 will go down in net.history as the September that never ended.”
Apple II History – APPLELINK PERSONAL EDITION /
AMERICA ONLINE (1988 – 1994)
Chicago Tribune – 179,425: Number of America Online CDs collected by the…
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Technologizer – A History of AOL, as Told in Its Own Old Press Releases
New York Times – Former Volunteers Sue AOL, Seeking Back Pay for Work
International Journal of Cultural Studies – America Online volunteers: Lessons from an early co-production community