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America Online, or AOL for short, is a corporate online service provider and Internet service provider (ISP). Based in Dulles, Virginia, with regional headquarters installations in many cities around the world, it is by far the most successful proprietary online service, with more than 22 million subscribers at one point.
For many Americans through the mid 1990s, AOL was the Internet, but the rise of open access to the Internet has shrunk its user base and left questions about its future.
In 2000, AOL merged with Time Warner. See Time Warner for information on the merger and operations since then.
AOL got its start as a short-lived venture called Control Video, a company whose product was an online service called Gameline for the Atari 2600 video game console. Subscribers bought a modem from the company for $49.95 and paid a one-time $15 setup fee. Gameline permitted subscribers to temporarily download games and keep track of high scores, at a cost of approximately $1 an hour.
In 1983 the company nearly went bankrupt, and a young marketing veteran named Steve Case ascended to the position of CEO.
Case changed the company's strategy, and in 1985 launched a sort of mega-BBS for Commodore 64 and 128 computers, originally called Quantum Link ("Q-Link" for short). He also changed the name of the company to Quantum Computer Services. In October 1989, Quantum launched its AOL service for Apple II and Macintosh computers, and in February 1991 AOL for DOS was opened. In October 1991, Quantum changed its name to America Online. These changes coincided with growth in pay-based BBS services, like Prodigy, CompuServe, and GEnie.
Case drove AOL as the online service for people unfamiliar with computers, in particular contrast to CompuServe, which had long served the technical community. AOL was the first service with a graphical-user interface (GUI) instead of command lines, and was well ahead of the competition in emphasizing communication among members as a feature.
In particular was the Chat Room, which allowed a large group of people with similar interests to convene and hold conversations, including:.
- Private rooms — created by any user. Hold up to 27 people.
- Conference rooms — created with permission of AOL. Hold up to 48 people and often moderated.
- Auditoriums — created with permission of AOL. Consisted of a stage and an unlimited number of rows. What happened on the stage was viewable by everybody in the auditorium but what happened within individual rows, of up to 27 people, was viewable only by the people within those rows.
AOL quickly left GEnie in the dirt, and by the mid-1990s, it passed Prodigy and CompuServe.
Originally, AOL charged its users an hourly fee, but in 1996 this changed and a flat rate of $19.99 a month was charged. Within three years, AOL's userbase would grow to 10 million people.
AOL was relatively late in providing access to the open Internet, which it reluctantly did in 1996.
In recent years, its traditional dial-up service has been declining in subscribers and popularity. In an attempt to combat this, the AOL for Broadband service, which delivers AOL content and chatrooms but no Internet access to users who have an existing high-speed Internet connection, was launched, but in 2004 the company pulled back from this plan.
AOL has long maintained a massive marketing push, mailing sign-up diskettes and CD-ROMs to over 100 million households, which fueled a massive growth and helped them dominate the online field. This push produced considerable backlash, including a program called No More AOL CDs that sought to gather one million unwanted CDs and dump them at AOL headquarters. Others view AOL disks as valuable collectible items due to the vast number of CD-ROM design variations released by the company.
While this does not apply to all users, people using AOL have a reputation for being excessively "noobish" - newbies who don't know netiquette. This is in part due to the fact that AOL is aimed towards people new to the internet.
To a segment of the online population, an e-mail address ending in aol.com is a sign of ignorance, to be avoided at all costs. Some old-timers say the Internet began to decline when AOL opened up to it.
As it grew, AOL purchased many other software companies, including:
Notable persons associated with AOL
- Jim Kimsey (former CEO and board chairman)
- Steve Case (former CEO and board chairman)
- Justin Frankel (Nullsoft founder), who resigned in early 2004.
- Michael Powell (during merging with Time Warner)
- Marc Andreessen (Netscape co-founder)
- Karen Thompson (AOL UK CEO & Chairman)
- Ted Leonsis (Vice-Chairman, President AOL Audience Group)