AOL
After 20 years as a dial-up Internet service provider, America Online still serves millions of people, although it's a far cry from the tens of millions of customers it had at its peak seven years ago.
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msnbc.com
updated 4/10/2009 8:24:33 AM ET 2009-04-10T12:24:33

America Online’s dial-up Internet service may be headed for the sale bin. Do we care?

Many don’t. Those of us who were around 20 years ago when AOL began might look back fondly at what became known as “the Internet on training wheels” for some.

I’m sentimental about AOL, but then, like lots of Americans, I moved on to high-speed broadband years ago. Now AOL, the once-dominant ISP in the country, is considered a drain and a pain to Time Warner, which is thinking of offloading it.

AOL had about 27 million customers in the United States at its peak in 2002, but is now down to about 7 million, a relative shadow of itself. Some of those subscribers are folks who live in areas that don’t have high-speed service available; others just don’t need or want to pay for it.

A possible purchaser for AOL could be EarthLink, which provides both dial-up and broadband Internet service, and had just under 3 million subscribers at the end of 2008. United Online, which owns NetZero and Juno dial-up services, has about 1.5 million paid subscribers.

Keys to the kingdom
AOL’s decline is somewhat like watching the aging of a smart but aggravating uncle who once taught you how to drive, then missed no opportunity to make each car trip a misery with his harping about the way you handle the road. You appreciate what he did for you, but it came at a cost.

America Online helped me and millions of others find their way onto the Web and into the world of e-mail at a time when only engineers and scientists had the keys to those kingdoms.

The dial-up service wasn’t the first — Prodigy, CompuServe (later bought by AOL) and others preceded it. But AOL was the easiest and most friendly with its digital greetings of “Welcome!” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

As hard as it is to believe now, there actually was a time when being told e-mail was sitting in your inbox was considered exciting, and not exacting.

And who could quibble with the charming 1998 movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? It marked AOL’s heyday and represented a cultural milestone: We were on our way to blending real life — including romance — with technology.

Oh, those busy signals
AOL did provide an easy avenue to the Web — once you could get to that avenue.

Busy signals while trying to get online were as common as the frustration of reaching a human being at the company, despite the blanketing of the nation with free AOL installation CDs in every magazine and at every convenience store.

Good luck, too, if you decided you’d had it with the service and wanted out. You were met with an infinite loop by phone — and forget e-mail.

Spam, too, became an electronic byproduct and not just a canned one, a problem that took AOL years to address.

We lived in what is now dubbed an electronic “walled garden,” the world of the Web as AOL saw it, where we didn’t venture out to the Internet at large. Of course, in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t much of the Internet as we know it now, and AOL’s walled garden kept most of us pretty happy.

In the mid-1990s, that would change, as browsers, such as Netscape (which AOL ultimately bought, then essentially killed) and Internet Explorer, let us move freely about the Web.

It was an intoxicating and liberating feeling. The speed at which we could wander the Web went from sluggish to screamin’ as cable TV companies also became cable Internet providers.

Both factors contributed to cementing our confidence that we could not only explore the Internet on our own, but do so quickly and without the screeching sound of a telephone modem.

The Internet was alive with lots of places, or sites, to explore. AOL seemed to be an impediment, not a gateway, to that world of excitement and energy.

AOL rebels took to the Net, outside of the provider’s walled garden, with sites such as AOLsucks.org and Anti-AOL.org. (The latter is “dead,” according to the person who was maintaining the site. “The information that was here is out of date and I’ve no plans to …research new information, nor update the site any further,” he writes on the site. “That said, I was shocked at how many hits the site still gets. Obviously, even in AOL’s current state, people still have questions about why it sucks and/or how to cancel.”

It is an improved AOL
The company has worked hard to improve its dial-up service and its spam filters. Still, it faces a hard road even though dial-up service, we’re told, is far from dead, especially in a recession.

AOL raised its lowest monthly price from $9.99 to $11.99 last year for unlimited service and 24/7 tech support. Those who just want the unlimited service, but with limited tech support, can still get the $9.99 plan.

EarthLink recently lowered its least expensive monthly plan by $2 to $7.95, and United Online charges $9.95 a month for its cheapest service.

In a study last year, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that about 10 percent of Americans use dial-up connections at home. Of that number, 19 percent said there’s nothing that will convince them to switch to broadband — not better availability or lower prices.

AOL may live on if Time Warner decides to keep it, or as part of another ISP. I’m just grateful that it’s a distant memory. Like floppy disks and dot-matrix printers, AOL is best considered nostalgically and not as a day-to-day reality of 21st-century life.

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