AOL Committed Suicide Yesterday

US AOL Subscribers, both Dial-Up and Broadband...

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As many of my peers, who have used the internet since the late 1980’s, there has been significant change over time.  If a human 6’ male had grown at the same rate as computer power has increased during that same period, the Moon would orbit the Earth just above the man’s ankles, standing on the surface of the Earth.  It would be significantly below that man’s knees. Said another way, the average distance from the Moon to Earth is 238,857 miles.  The man would be much more than 1,000,000 miles tall!   This growth of computer power is defined in something called ‘Moore’s Law’.  It postulates that computing power doubles every 18 – 24 months.  Against this background, I have been a user of AOL since early 1991.  Not just a user, a bloody Cheerleader!

Back then, there weren’t many Internet-access applications in use.  CompuServe and a few others come to mind; none of them held a candle to America Online.  As an old fogey, involved with Information Technology since 1968, I was proud to join the AOL Beta Test team.  The team formed in 1990; I selected my AOL UserID on February 21, 1991.  AOL came out of the shadows on April 24, 1991.  I’ve been with them since before the software’s public release.

I’ve been a loyal user through all the rough waters, the bad software, the recession of 1991, and through the irrational merger with Time Warner.  As is seem in their corporate sphere, they too are hit with the need to increase their customer base, and cut costs.

Let me tell you a story about how a software vendor reduces cost; It is a story of Thin Clients and Fat Clients.  Back in the day, there were two ways a Content Provider could deliver content from the Internet, to a customer, with a personal computer.  These were the days of slow PC’s and abysmal network performance.  Due to the miserable network, a vendor had to give his customer a Fat Client on their PC, connected back to the ‘Cloud’ (we used to call it the network).  That provided the customer with a rich, full-featured, application that could run at an acceptable level of performance, even though it ran over a telephone wire at 2,400 BAUD.  It was expensive for the vendor, prone to ‘cockpit errors’ (user incompetence), and had a very expensive upgrade cycle – not to mention the astronomical support costs.

Thin Clients, however, meant that the customer could connect to the content provider (software vendor’s) through a Web Browser (which really didn’t exist prior to 1995).  All content, all files, all ‘rich’ media, could live on the Content Provider’s server – which would be ‘served’ over a high-speed connection, to the display browser in their client’s homes.  No ‘cockpit errors’, no costly upgrade cycles, and customer support needs dropped by an order of magnitude.

So, along comes the second decade of 2000, expensive Fat Clients still abound, running over broadband fiber.  Support costs are escalating and their customers Love their Fat Clients.  You need to make the Fat Client, in the customer’s home, less attractive.  You deliberately ‘break it’.   You degrade speed of the software, you take away rich content from the client, or, as in the case of AOL on my computer yesterday, you send your customer into “Upgrade Hell”.  This is a well-known practice and it does work, particularly among customers who would rather be playing golf.

AOL Version 9.6 loaded yesterday.  Files, address book, notes and all of my content moved just fine.  The only (minor) issue was that it no longer ‘phoned home’.  The application came up, and immediately crashed (in such a way that it couldn’t be saved).  OK, gotta watch out for those notes and address books. I didn’t dare uninstall it; my only hope was to restore the state of the computer to the state it was in yesterday (when everything worked).  Time Passes.  Up comes AOL 9.5 and life is good.  Double-click and AOL starts to load – and dies.  Rats.  Without risking all of my data, which I could access on the AOL server in the sky, I cut my losses, saved my data, and now access AOL through my browser.  It is not as rich, doesn’t have all the features or glitz, but it works, Slooooowly……

I really got them in the end though; AOL 9.5 STILL lives on my notebook, and will forever – just to make the parents of AOL, after 7,246 days, continue to support at one Fat Client.

RIP AOL, Hello corporate savings!


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