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Magazines > Information Today > December 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 11 — December 2004

Fear Factors
By Dick Kaser

The bellwether of the dot-com era and the Google of Wall Street in its day, AOL is having a face-off with the cosmic truth of technology enterprises: Technology comes and goes, and product life cycles do not tend to last longer than a generation.

Having introduced tens of millions to the concept of networking and information retrieval, the world's largest ISP for dial-up access is finding itself squeezed by broadband.

Once the easiest way to get online, AOL became (and still is) the Internet itself for many Americans. It offers a contained, relatively stable space for online access. And compared to the wide-open and often wild public Web, it promises a little more safety to its community of members and their families. With every new AOL release come new features to protect users, including parental controls, spam reporting and filtering, and other add-ons catering to the fear that some have of going online or letting members of their family loose on the Web.

At its peak 2 years ago, AOL boasted 26.5 million subscribers in the U.S. alone. Multiply that number by an average of three users per account (AOL allows five) and you're getting pretty close to the number of Americans who voted in the most recent elections. No small market penetration and no small Internet presence.

But at last official count (June), the number of AOL subscribers was down from its peak by 3 million, and the company said the decline could only be expected to continue.

Why? Broadband migration. Who needs a dial-up ISP in addition to a broadband supplier? Who needs a content aggregator when search on the open Web has gotten so good? Who needs to pay for an e-mail account, when Google and Yahoo! are giving them away free?

But, of course, there's still the fear factor. AOL offers safety in numbers. And users who abandon AOL in search of faster access will soon discover that the cost of freedom is increased risk.

According to a study partially funded by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance (which in turn is sponsored by the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Trade Commission), there's more to safety than AOL's safe haven. You also need a secure computer. The study (, released in late October, showed that most Internet users are not on computers protected by firewalls, and most are not running up-to-date virus detection software. Two-thirds have not updated their virus definitions in the past 7 days. The study also showed that many have computers that are infected with countless adware and spyware programs and don't even know it. Put these risk factors into play, and AOL users switching to broadband or less-secure wireless networks will soon find their machines grinding to a halt.

In an apparent effort to keep their users tethered by phone to the AOL mothership, the latest AOL ad campaign is playing up the threat of computer infection and promising a solution (free McAfee antivirus software) as part of the subscription. OK, fair enough. AOL has always been about making information technology easy-to-use and making subscribers feel comfortable and safe using it.

There's a lesson here for everyone who is involved in providing an information service to a community of users: Usability counts.

Despite the recent loss of subscribers and other financial woes (AOL plans to lay off 700 more employees this month), I predict that AOL will not be leaving the scene any time soon. The company seems to get the cosmic truth about electronic services: Technology curves are steep and short. Peaks come quickly. And while you play out one era, you need to be riding the next wave (which AOL recently has said may be personalized search).

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is
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