Mark Jen (of “fired by Google for blogging” fame) blogs about AOL being a possible dark horse. Maybe his working for Plaxo (a contact management service and more) and their recent partnership with AOL has given him a reason to take a closer look at AOL than everyone else, and it’s great to see what he’s found: AOL making serious strides in their product offerings, both for paid AOL members and for the web audience at large. On the things Mark found alone lead him to suggest that AOL might be a giant sleeper, just waiting for the opportunity to cut loose and take the lead in the latest phase of the Internet. Let me pick up where Mark left off …
- VoIP? AOL has come to the Internet telephony party with their own AOL Internet Phone Service, their enhanced VoIP service, in April 2005 (Press Release).
- Broadband connectivity? Everyone cites declining dial-up subscriber counts as “the beginning of the end of AOL,” yet if that were really the case, would AOL be working so hard to move folks from dial-up to broadband? How? By partnering with Time Warner Cable to create a customized broadband offering for AOL and Road Runner subscribers, in January 2005 (Press Release). Or, by offering a discounted AOL Over Broadband offering, so folks can continue to enjoy the network of AOL properties at broadband speeds.
- Music? If AOL’s recent participation in AOL Music: Live 8 wasn’t proof enough, what about AOL Radio featuring XM Satellite content (Press Release). On top of all that, AOL has MusicNet@AOL offering legal music downloads for a fixed monthly fee: a great way for parents to let their children enjoy music affordably and legally. If that wasn’t enough, AOL’s now starting to offer select free MP3 downloads in AOL Music Downloads. This is a very well-rounded product offering: member-only, a-la-carte subscription, and free to the web. There’s something for everyone.
The AOL of yesteryear helped create the Internet phenomenon we know of today by helping millions of people overcome the technical difficulties of getting online and offering nearly ubiquitous dial-up capability for its members and bundling easy-to-use software that offered a rich and vibrant online experience while everyone else was trying to figure out how to standardize around HTML and create web browsers. AOL was a company focused on building a community — an online community — by getting people online, giving them the tools to communicate with each other, and that’s made the world a better place, in my opinion. AOL spent the better part of the last 20 years achieving this, and it was definitely no small task.
The AOL of today is again tackling the hard problems: how to bring the best online experience to everyone, not just paying AOL members, keeping people’s always-on connections and constantly-connected computers safe and secure, and protecting children while they explore this new online world. It’s never easy being the pioneer in a space, and undoubtedly in five years when other companies follow AOL’s lead and do a better job having learned from AOL’s mistakes, AOL’s continued existance will be called into question again. But, one thing is certain: AOL will be spending the next 20 years working towards these new accomplishments.
Today’s doom-sayers will flip a complete 180 wanting to sound enlightened by saying that they knew AOL would succeed all along, and there will be new doom-sayers who will proclaim that the beginning of the end of AOL is imminent. But, in the end, we know who really gets it and who doesn’t.
UPDATE: Looks like Russell Beattie gets it, too.