AOL – Time for a change?

  Most of us know what stands for. Up until a year or so ago, we all got disks mailed to us. was the #1 ISP in the nation for a long time. Now it’s struggling to keep up with the times. Recently they purchased , a social networking site. Is going in the right direction? What should they do to become a top name again?It all started around 1981 with a revolutionary way to download games and music on the Atari 2600: for a $65 fee (Modem and setup fee) and $1 an hour usage. William (Bill) von Meister was the man that had this prolific vision. Because of his ideas, he made Isaac Azimov proclaim that this was “the beginning of the Information Age”. Bill started many companies and ideas on communications, but the one company – called Control Video Corporation – was probably the most poignant and the basis that brought to life.

When approached in 81, was turned down by . Bill found funding, and in 1983, Gameline was introduced at CES. Bill paid showgirls to bring customers to his suite (because he didn’t want to buy a booth at CES) so they could see the idea at work. Von Meisters’ “Consumer Electronics Product of the Decade” still wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.

The plan was to have a million users; however they only reached .3 percent of that goal. The idea was not selling, so in a last ditch effort, the investors brought on Jim Kimsey. After much work, Von Meister was out and Kimsey was promoted to CEO. CVC became Quantum Computers until 1991 when they officially changed the name to AOL.

In 1991, AOL created “AOL for DOS”.  They had Graphical User Interfaces so people could communicate without looking at a Green Screen. The Chat Room concept was born; online private rooms, conference rooms and auditoriums were created for gamers. By the mid 90’s, AOL sat on top of the game from companies like and .

Finally, in 1996 they moved to the Internet and created the online community. AOL grew strong until 2000 when it decided to purchase for 164 billion. The Federal Trade Commission stepped in, reviewed the merger and finally gave the OK to complete the merger in 2001. AOL – was derived, and was shortened to in 2003.

The ISP business was quickly getting replaced by broadband. AOL couldn’t compete and so they started to falter. They tried to use AOL as an “Online Community” add-on for people with other services. Eventually, the dial up business became too expensive, and AOL split the ISP from their advertising so the Internet Access Division could possibly be sold off. The company officially changed to AOL LLC.

The history is rich. The company went from total bankruptcy, to a powerhouse and finally to scrounging for ideas to stay alive on the web. AOL has some good backing behind it –  great names like Time Warner and ventures like TMZ.com, which is known for their coverage of celebrity news.

Still, the acronym “AOL” leaves a sour taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths. Thoughts of CD mailers and Free 1 month internet access come to mind. A lot of people for a while would use the CD, get their month free, then cancel the service and find another CD (which was conveniently mailed to them) and get another month for free. AOL stood for “Phone internet service” and a rich community inside. America was online with faster connections for the same or better prices.

AOL came back into the news with the purchase of Bebo. It’s an interesting step in their direction of the company. Will Bebo be the thing that saves AOL, or should they do something else?

The key will be to get off the shaky ground. A new look and feel should start the ball rolling. AOL is dead, for we are already online. The name should be changed. Bebo stands for “Blog Early, Blog Often”. It’s a interesting name, but not catchy enough to be a predecessor and not encompassing enough to define AOL. And no, ABebo is not an alternative.

AOL still has a mail system and users. However, besides the “Buddy list” and it’s music  service, that’s all it is. They need to increase the excitement for this service. A live office suite – for example – would bring people to AOL mail. Turn the email into a full productive office environment.

The key is to bring an innovation such as what Bill von Meister offered. Another Google or Yahoo is not what is needed here. Help people understand why they should move services to AOL. Have a free section and a pay content service – All under this new name.

With a structured game plan and the right acquisitions, AOL might find themselves in a good position. They might find more people coming back to the company. Most importantly, show why this is the thing that continues to drive the Information Age.

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