CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0

These old-school online services may be shadows of their former selves, but they have a lot to teach today's online communities.

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America Online (AOL)

Founded: 1985 (as Quantum Link); 1988 (as AppleLink and PC Link); 1989 (as America Online)

Status: Available at AOL.com

AOL's road to being the largest dial-up Internet service provider in the world started humbly with a gaming site for Commodore computer users in the mid-1980s. Quantum Computer Services provided dial-up access to gaming servers that pioneered the massively multiplayer online experience enjoyed by World of Warcraft aficionados today. Quantum's first service, Quantum Link (or Q-Link), was launched in 1985, featuring graphical chat environments designed by LucasArts and online interactive serial fiction.

These features attracted the interest of Apple Computer and the electronics retailer Tandy. Joint agreements with these companies resulted in branded services using Mac and PC client software: AppleLink and PC Link, both launched in 1988. In 1989, when Apple pulled the plug on its joint venture, Quantum rebranded the service America Online, popularly abbreviated as AOL. A DOS-based version followed in 1991.

From the outset, AOL was focused on a nontechnical audience of gamers, and used a proprietary graphical operating environment instead of text-based terminal software. But there was more to America Online than a pretty interface. It gave its users the ability to build their own networks of contacts.

"AOL allowed users to create their own chat room spaces," says Mike Schoenbach, who was a sysop on then-competitor CompuServe, "and brought instant messaging to a system-wide level with buddy lists. Social online sites that millions of people use today -- Facebook, MySpace -- are very much built upon that online experience."

At the beginning, AOL was playing catch-up to such established communities as CompuServe and GEnie. In 1993, AOL opened up access to Usenet newsgroups, and followed up with the ability to send e-mail from AOL addresses to the Internet at large. At the same time, the company clung to the "walled garden" approach, spending a fortune developing its own content and giving users access to the Internet only where it saw fit. But the writing was on the wall and by 1995, the AOL client software included a full-fledged Web browser.

Despite its missteps, the service enjoyed almost ludicrous growth, fueled by ubiquitous trial floppy disks (and, later, CDs) bound into lifestyle magazines, bulk-mailed into physical mailboxes, and stacked in bins at supermarket checkouts. People were also driven to its forums by popular television. AOL keywords flashed along the bottom of TV screens on such daytime shows as Oprah, where Ms. Winfrey reinforced the common misconception that AOL was the Internet by referring to her AOL forum as a "Web site."

Logging into GEnie with an Apple IIGS on August 30th, 1995

A wall of AOL trial floppy disks and CDs (credit: monkerino, licensed under CC-BY-ND 2.0)

By the mid-'90s, America Online had expanded into foreign markets and officially rebranded itself as AOL. It also became the victim of its own success. AOL subscribers flooding into Usenet became unpopular as "clueless newbies," and there was hostile behavior inside AOL itself as password phishing and spamming spoiled the community experience for many.

But the company still grew, like the Internet market in general. At its peak in 2002, AOL had more than 26 million subscribers, but not all of those were necessarily active members in the AOL community. By then, AOL was favored as a dial-up ISP rather than a community in its own right. When broadband subsequently ate away at AOL's dial-up business, its subscriber base fell back down to around 6 million dial-up subscribers worldwide at the beginning of 2009.

While still enjoying its turn-of-the-century growth spurt, AOL bought a string of technology companies and, in 2001, the media leviathan Time Warner. When the Web bubble burst in the early 2000s, the merged company quietly deemphasized AOL, dropping the AOL Time Warner brand. After 8 years of trying to make sense of the merged corporate structure, Time Warner decided in May 2009 to spin AOL off into its own publicly traded company by 2010.

NEXT: Lessons learned

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