AOL was not the first online service though it did predate the commercial Internet. It grew and grew and prospered whereas Compuserv, Prodigy, and numerous others are forgotten.
It was not a technology leader. That was not its value and its market was not technophiles. It was a service, which provided content, connectivity, and community before the Internet and during itsgrowth spurt. Even after the Internet was common, AOL offered a comprehensive service, which attracted and retained tens of millions of users. For millions AOL was the Internet.
What set AOL apart and made it preeminent was marketing. Not hyperbolic like Apple nor solid like IBM, nor memorable in creative or execution. As was said of Coca Cola in its glory days, AOL strategy was to be within an arm’s length of desire.
AOL diskettes and later CDs were in the mail, in magazines, at libraries, convenience stores, and post offices. They included a “free” trial and a competitive price. It was easy to join and not so easy to quit. If you had access to a telephone and $20/month you were in. So were 25 million others, at its zenith, circa 2000.
In the days before standard email addresses, AOL was easily the largest community of online users. An AOL screen name was, like a well known address, something people were reluctant to change. Rather like mobile phone numbers before mandated portability.
What happened? How did so dominant market player loose its market?
AOL was king of dialup and its market allowed it to prevail over competitors with lower prices and different offerings. Dial up is dying and the fortunes of the king declined with his domain.
This leaves AOL with millions of customers and increasingly less to offer them or make them stay. Its portal, content, free email, and other services delivered on an advertising pays the bills model looks, feels and smell sort of like Yahoo, MSN, or a number of others. If it controls costs, witness its recent layoff of 5000, it can survive for quite a while as one of many web media properties. As a key player, it’s gone.