Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Fixing AOL.

For a long time now, I’ve been pounding the podium about how AOL sucks. While they’ve been pushing themselves as an easy way onto the Internet, what they actually delivered was an abysmal experience. This boiled down to four main points:

  1. Their “content” was usually just dumbed-down content from other sites.

  2. They always provided second-rate ISP service (the number of times I’ve been denied access at a critical moment due to insufficient infrastructure is absurd).

  3. The experience they offered with most of the web outside of their own gold-plated walls was horrible because their packaged browser needlessly sucked.

  4. Being an AOL user was justifiably associated with being a newbie or a moron, because most of their “community” wasn’t web-savvy.

Today I’m going to address some of these issues. Why? Because this morning, AOL demonstrated to me that at least on the business model side, they’re seeing the light. Not in a way that most web users will like, mind you, but in a way that those of us with any business sense will appreciate. And that gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, AOL might become one of the driving forces that resuscitate the tech economy. Therefore, I’m going to outline the ways that I think AOL can not just survive but gain an all new foothold on the world’s web users.
What I saw this morning was this. While reading the weblog of the good Anil Dash, I found this on CNET: “AOL Time Warner Pulls Free Net Magazines“.
For those of you who just want the gist:

Beginning Sunday, the popular magazines People and Entertainment Weekly will no longer offer content on their Web sites for free. Content will be accessible only to magazine subscribers and AOL members. Newsstand buyers are granted access to content on the publication’s Web site, but only for the duration of the magazine edition they purchase.
In the month or so following the initial launches, other titles will make the same move, including Teen People, Sports Illustrated Kids, Real Simple, InStyle, Sunset, Southern Accents, Time for Kids, Costal Living, Cooking Light, Southern Living and Parenting.

AOL is finally beginning to understand that in order to remain commercially viable in an increasingly web-savvy America, it must evolve into the online equivalent of HBO — which means offering premium content. HBO only works because many of the shows they’re playing these days (Six Feet Under, the Sopranos) are just plain better than most of what’s on the networks and basic cable. It’s time for AOL to realize that they need to be offering their own premium content, and this is the one area where the AOL-Time Warner merger made sense.
I predict that this won’t stop here, either. If AOL were truly intelligent, they’d start buying reputable web sites with severe cash flow problems and pick up all their bills, allow them to keep running just as they had before, but make them accessible only to AOL subscribers or owners of an as-of-yet-uninvented “AOL premium pass” which would allow those of us who want to keep our own ISPs access into the AOL content network. Sites like Suck and Feed might still be around today if they’d bought into such a package. Dollars to donuts that Salon might even be interested in such a deal. And right now, the time is right: many top-rate independent content sites may be available for pennies on the dollar.
So that takes care of point one. So what about the other three?
Fixing the service: becoming a first-rate ISP with premium offerings
AOL’s service sucks partly because their infrastructure is good, but still insufficient. AOL is trying to fix this problem, but they have a lot of competition. Their broadband initiative is a step in the right direction, but in order to really become the top ISP in the country (if not the world), they need to start offering services that the others can’t. One possibility: find a way to partner with a company like T-Mobile to offer Wi-Fi or mobile Internet access as a part of AOL’s basic package. Mobile, always-on Internet access is the way it’s going, but I don’t want to have to pay one bill to my ISP and another to my phone company for related services. Save me money, offer me free wireless access at any Starbucks in America and I’ll think about it.
Another possibility, largely related: continue the push to make AOL talk to everything. Clients such as Trillium or Fire exist to talk to both the AOL IM network and Yahoo, ICQ, and MSN. At SXSW this year, one of the main talking points was how corporate integration of instant messaging is the Next Big Thing. I agree. Apple’s Rendezvous integration with iChat is huge. Being able to send screen captures back and forth over an IM connection is a huge boost to client support. Further, I vastly prefer handling tech support over AIM because it gives me an easy paper trail to record and refer to later. As AOL branches out into this market, it will only trounce Yahoo, ICQ and MSN by first allowing its clients to talk to those users and then start offering — there’s that buzzword again — premium service. Give me a little button in the corner I can hit to switch to transcripted videoconferencing or voice-over-IP via the IM system. Give me easier file transfers and monitor mirroring. Hell, even start giving me some of the same system-level fun integration that Microsoft’s Three Degrees initiative is playing with. All of these things will make your users brag about being AOL members, and they’ll give personal recommendations to their friends on MSN or Yahoo every time they express disappointment that their friends’ systems won’t play along. You have to open those channels first, though, to let your users talk to their users. The result is a form of grassroots word-of-mouth sabotage.
Fixing the experience outside the castle walls: fixing the browser
This one’s simple. Why the company that owns Netscape couldn’t just bundle Navigator as their fast, sleek, standards-compliant browser instead of a half-cocked homebrew still boggles my mind. That web developers should even have to worry about how their sites appear in AOL’s browser is ridiculous.
So AOL’s system automatically compresses and decompresses images on the fly. OK, great. So do the browsers you see on mobile phones. That’s no excuse for such a crappy HTML renderer. C’mon, AOL — ditch the homebrew and just bundle Navigator. Jeez.
Fixing the community: accomodating people that want to use AOL services without being “AOL users”
AOL has inflicted a significant amount of damage to itself via the success of its own marketing machine. By constantly presenting itself as family-friendly and an “easy access point” to the Net, AOL has also become known as a cesspool of newbies, l33t kiddies and other annoying Internet citizens. Don’t get me wrong — I started out as an AOL user, and my parents are both AOL users. But those of us who have spent any major time on the Net view AOL as something to be graduated from in order to join those who “get it”. It’s like an Internet nursery school, someplace where people hold your hand and make sure you only see the nice shows and give you cookies and put you down for your mid-afternoon nap when you get all sweepy pies.
If AOL is going to shift into the online HBO, they need to offer tiers of service for “Newbie” and “Pro” users. Hell, change the name of their pro service to some ridiculous mid-90s nonsense name — we’ll call it “Cyntrellia” for the sake of argument — and add a small tagline that reads “An AOL company” to offer longtime net users a way to use their services without being associated with the stigma. Maybe the Cyntrellia users are the ones who get the hardcore geek services, like an AOL homepage that’s actually a glorified RSS syndicator. Keep the AIM services available to everyone, because it’s the grandmas who will really enjoy videoconferencing with their grandkids. But give the Cyntrellia users (Cyntrellians?) more oomph. Regular AOL users get Blogger. Cyntrellians get Movable Type. That kind of thing. Allow users like me who want the pro AIM service and access to the content network to subscribe to Cyntrellia (an AOL company without being AOL!) and not play in the same playground as the nursery school kids unless I want to.
Why not just make all of AOL as feature-ridden as this hypothetical Cyntrellia? Simple. AOL must not abandon their existing position as an easy way onto the Net. There are still plenty of grandparents and new users out there who do need a way into the system. Many of them will become thriving, intelligent members of the online community. AOL is filling that need admirably, and abandoning that position altogether is akin to Sears forsaking their tools section in favor of the housewares and “the softer side of Sears”. While they’re focusing on this new expansion, the ISP equivalent of Lowe’s or Home Depot will come in and steal their core business. No, AOL needs to do both — hence, the spin-off idea.
Will spinning off Cyntrellia fragment the community? Yes. Will this encourage the best members of the AOL community to leave, thus creating an even worse brain drain on the entry-level AOL experience? Probably. But here’s the kicker: it’s happening anyway. Come up with a system by which the Cyntrellia users can easily access the AOL network and contribute to the newbies’ experiences (chat with them, sell stuff to them, whatever), fine. But you have to give the pro AOL users a place to go when they’re ready to graduate, or else it’s sorry, Charlie, they’re headed to an independent ISP, and you’re out their money.
A third option: way back at the beginning, I mentioned an “AOL premium pass”. This would be for those of us who really just want access to the content. Sorry, AOL, but even with Cyntrellia in place you’re still going to have people that just don’t want to leave their existing ISPs. Fine. Give them something like a Microsoft Passport which allows them, for $4.95 a month, to access all the sites in the AOL content network. They don’t get cool videoconferencing features and they still have to pay one bill to their ISP and another to the cellular providers. Too bad, they have their own systems in place. But they get the content, and you get another five bucks a month you wouldn’t have gotten anyway.
In closing
You know, I didn’t mean to write this much on the subject, but there’s so much that can be done. At SXSW this year I was ranting and railing at great length about how down everyone felt, about how there was this “been-there, done-that” mentality associated with the Internet. The truth is, we really are still getting started. XML, RSS, even CSS still have a long way to go before they’re fully implemented, and bringing these cutting-edge technologies to the grandmas and schoolkids of America is where the Net still has a lot of room to grow, both intellectually and commercially.
AOL is one of those companies that can offer developers a way back to the warm sunshine of the 90s. If companies like AOL and Microsoft and Apple can help bring new opportunities like the ones I’ve outlined above to the masses, I think we’ll start to see the tech economy rebound. People will always be willing to pay for exponential increases in useful capabilities. All we need are the vision, the resources and the drive to build them.