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
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
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
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 (http://www.staysafeonline.info/news/safety_study_v04.pdf),
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.