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10 Years on AOL: Feast and Famine

- 2006.11.03

Bong! . . . :-) . . . Welcome to Macintosh!

Two days ago marked an important anniversary in my long-winding computing journey. On November 1, 1996, our family got on America Online for the third and final time.

I'd like to tell the story of how I made my foray into the online world. The year was 1994. Our family decided to get an online service, and we decided to try America Online because of the 10 free hours trial offer.

It was a wonderful thing to behold! Discovering this new "virtual" world was a sight to see! This was during the years I was away from the Apple world and fully entrenched in the PC phenomenon that was taking place.

The computer: Our first home computer, an IBM PS/1 Advisor

The America Online version: 2.0

The screen name: Member2556

America Online had a very simple interface back then. You didn't have Channels or ads getting in your way. No smiley's and none of this "cutesy" crap.

This was before America Online was called AOL for short. Before it was dubbed AOHell. Before they were known as "the Internet with training wheels."

You had a very simple, easy to understand welcome screen. You could get news, weather, sports, games, chat, or anything you wanted. Apple's eWorld, a jointly developed online service between Apple and America Online, meshed AOL technologies with Apple's design genius and came up with an online service based around a graphical small town.

While browsing the service, I came across what I would enjoy most about America Online in the years to come. The bread & butter, so to speak. In a word, forums. More specifically, the computing forums.

Computer companies once resided on America Online via their own forum. We received loads of help with our PS/1 through the use of the IBM Support Forums. Even Apple had its own forum, which I'll elaborate on later.

Night or day, you could always find help on these forums. They were truly helpful because of the wonderful people who staffed the forums, called hosts. But it wasn't only the hosts who made the forums helpful. It was also the regular members who would also gladly answer your questions. You had chats almost every night of the week, or you could post a message on the message boards. Most of the time you'd get a quick and helpful response.

America Online also had a computing section (or channel, as they call it now) that housed file libraries, otherwise known as download areas. I loved downloading, and it was due to this that our free time ran out quickly.

It wasn't only the computing forums I enjoyed. During many holidays, whether New Year's, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other holidays, AOL would setup a temporary forum for that holiday. They had lots of tips, tricks, and, best of all, downloads. My favorite holiday forum was Halloween On AOL! :-)

Between 1994 and 1995, we had been on America Online two different times, and each time we left.

One day AOL announced a $19.95 a month unlimited time plan. It would take effect November 1, 1996, so we decided to go for it! It was great to be back online again.

Throughout the rest of 1996 and 1997, America Online scrambled to install more servers to accommodate the huge number of people signing up, flooding the service. In short, that's when America Online went from being just another online service to being an overnight success that propelled them to dominant status in the online world.

The Internet

The good times for America Online and its rivals didn't last long. This pesky little thing called the Internet kept rearing its head. Other online services were falling by the wayside due to the increasing popularity of the Internet.

In March 1996, after less than two years, Apple's eWorld shut its doors. In 1999, two legends in the online service realm would succumb to the onslaught of the Internet. In October, Prodigy, a joint venture between CBS, Sears, and IBM that had been around since 1988, turned off its lights. GEnie (created by GE), which had been around since 1985, would follow suit in December.

A year before that, America Online, seeing a threat to its online service domination by the original online service, CompuServe, acquired them and drove CompuServe into a slow descent of obscurity. As of 1999, the handful of online services that had been fighting against the Internet had dwindled down to one.

The battle lines were drawn, and the war was on! It was America Online vs. the Internet. Only one would win. Only one would reign supreme. Only time would tell who the winner would be.

AOL vs. the Internet

In 1998, the computing forums on America Online began shutting their doors and moving to the Internet. This was a trend I started to see go full steam ahead by 2000.

I started to dislike America Online more and more because of this. The forums, in my opinion, were what defined AOL. The last of the old guard was losing the war against the new guard, the Internet.

Who was I rooting for? America Online. Why? I may be only one of a select few who actually liked the "walled garden" or "gated community" approach. Being on America Online was like being part of a community, much like being a part of the Apple community. You knew where to find things, there was always something going on, and there were always hosts around to help. The atmosphere was more like Cheers, where everybody knew your name.

More and more computing forums left the shores of America Online for the brave, new frontier of the Internet.

Apple on AOL

One last computer company remained when all others had flown the coup, and that, my friends, was Apple with their Apple on AOL forum. In 2001, I saw a message asking for volunteers to help host chats and message boards. I put in an application, sent it off, and became a host under the Community Leader program, which was America Online's volunteer program. I went through online training that was mandatory for all who wanted to become Community Leaders. After training, I didn't become a chat host right away, due to Apple on AOL going through some renovations. In late 2001 or early 2002, Apple on AOL reopened, and I began hosting chats. My "uniform" (official screen name) was HOST AWWC Tommy.

I was enjoying America Online again, as I had in days of old. I enjoyed the wonderful people I got to work alongside at Apple on AOL such as Jeanne, who ran the forum, Kevin, and Scott, along with many others. Not to mention the countless wonderful members that I met in the chats I hosted.

It's Gone

Without the hardworking, dedicated staff and the equally dedicated members who dropped by, posting messages and attending our chats, Apple on AOL wouldn't have been the success it was. Then, in March 2003, sad news would befall us. Without so much as a warning, Apple on AOL was gone.

We received an email telling us it had been shut down. It was discouraging for all of us, especially for me, because I enjoyed chat hosting. Everyone disbanded fairly quickly after that. Some eventually gave up being a Community Leader, while others marched on.

Kevin eventually talked me into becoming a host for America Online's unofficial Mac support forum, the Mac Community on AOL. Two months after the close of Apple on AOL, I joined the Mac Community in May 2003. I became known as HOST Comp Tommy.

Although I enjoyed my time with the Mac Community, it just wasn't the same as it had been with Apple on AOL. There wasn't that same feeling of enjoyment, accomplishment, and camaraderie with the staff.

Worse, the chat I hosted was largely dead. A large part of the reason for that was that I was the only one hosting an OS 9 chat, and most people were crowding the OS X chats.

I would become a HOST for the Disabilities Community in February 2004. I was known as HOST Care Tommy there. I had been with the Disabilities Community for over a year and with the Mac Community for just over two years when the whole bottom fell out. In May 2005, America Online decided to shut down the entire Community Leader program.

America Online no longer needed the hosts who gave up their time and energy to help countless members on the service over the years. The Community Leader program had been around almost since the beginning of America Online, to hear it from some longtime veterans of the CL program.

We saw the writing on the wall in ways I'd rather not explain. All the CLs received an official AOL email essentially relieving us of duty. They told us the end was scheduled for June 8, 2005. I hosted or cohosted every chat, every night, 2 to 3 weeks before the end.

Our host screen names had to be deleted by midnight on June 8. I literally waited until the last second to turn in my names. That last night was sad in many ways. I still have the chat log in my archives.

The last good part of America Online was gone.

During my time as a Community Leader, I continued to see America Online go downhill. Most all the forums had shut down or consolidated. The Mac Community got consolidated into the Computing + Electronics Channel.

AOL Embraces the Internet

The Internet had won the war, beating out America Online. Instead of continuing the war against the Internet, AOL decided to pull an "if ya can't beat 'em, join 'em" and started transitioning from being a commercial online service to become an ISP. Their first step in doing this was opening up some content that had previously only been available for members.

This was the beginning of the end for the last of the old guard. The "walled garden" was coming down, and I hated it.

Recently, America Online surrendered fully to the Internet. They've opened the entire service to nonmembers. All for free. The "walled garden" has not only been torn down, it's been obliterated.

Commercial online services have been relegated to the scrap heap of computing history, destined to become nothing more than a distant memory in most people's minds. While I see some advantages to the free route, mostly I see a dead end coming for America Online.

It Ain't the Same - Not Even Close

As I look back on ten years of hell and high water, as well as good times, I'm reminded of how truly wonderful the good ol' days were on America Online. While I've grown to like the Internet to some extent, it feels like being in New York City instead of a small town. Search engines such as Google help somewhat, but there's so much information that even search engines don't help much in sorting it out. It's like being on the Information Superhighway with a big sign saying, "Welcome To The Internet - Travel at Your Own Risk."

If and when America Online dies, I won't miss the remnants of it. I won't miss what it has become.

I'll miss what it once was and remember it for just that, what it was.

Long live the commercial online services: CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online, GEnie, Delphi, and eWorld. You brought us all together when computers were made of hard plastic and metal with clicky keyboards, before they became an everyday commodity. You brought Apple users together with our Apple IIs and later with our Macs. You provided us access to your download areas, and much of what we downloaded still resides on a hoard of floppy disks or burned on CDs.

You gave everyday people the chance to be extraordinary volunteers helping people navigate your services, many of who we developed a common bond with and eventually became good friends with.

You brought us many years of enjoyment through those phone lines. Whether it was via a forum, a chat room, a message board, or a game, you brought us together, day or night.

You were the heart and soul of the online world before the Internet. Although you may be gone, your legacy and the memories you left behind live on. Your contribution to the computer industry will no doubt have its place in history. You will never be forgotten. May you all rest in peace.

If you have a story to share about your memories of America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, Delphi, or eWorld, send it to thomas (at) lowendmac (dot) com. LEM

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