Can someone explain AOL for me?

As a computer professional, this is sort of embarassing to admit, but I don’t get AOL at all. Why and how do people actually use the thing?

How do they use it? They install the software and launch it (or launch the software that’s probably already installed), go through a sign-on process, choose a screen name and off they go. They navigate through AOL’s content either by clicking links or using “keywords” (e.g. keyword SPORTS to get to the Sports content).

As to why, the answer probably varies by person so there’s no factual answer. I used it for several years because it was easy and I met people I liked hanging out with online. I worked in various forums (specialized content areas) so I got a free account for a while, so it was a free source of Internet access.

My dad is on AOL and he uses it primarily for email. He checks some of the sports content every so often and I think might look at stock prices. He has a basic monthly plan for about $5 a month and it serves his needs.

Back when I was working forums, one of the honchos (in response to a slew of complaints about a software upgrade) got on our cases about complaining because we weren’t the typical AOL user that the software was designed for. The typical subscriber AOL was after at that time (this was several years ago so things may have changed) was a male in his 40s-50s who would use the service primarily for basic email but would also in response to seeing “go to keyword FILLINTHEBLANK” in an ad might check out the keyword. He used the service an average of 5 hours a month. And according to the honcho, his name was “Fred.”

Well, America Online is an ISP and internet portal. It allows members to get on the web, send e-mail, and also contains a variety of chat rooms, message boards, games, stores and services for its members. You install the AOL software on your computer, then subscribe for either a flat monthly fee or a certain amount of time each month. While there are other, cheaper ISPs, a lot of people still use AOL, because it’s easy to use, it advertises a great deal, and it has a lot of services.

Did you have any specific questions?

How is it easy?

I don’t think it is any easier than setting up a real dialup connection in Windows 95.

It’s easy because you just install the software (which usually comes preloaded on the computer anyway), tell it where you live, pick a phone number near where you live, then enter in your user name and password and hit the sign on button. That’s not that hard.

Is this a question? A rant? A poll?


People use AOL because it’s cheap, easy, low maintenance and an obvious, no-brainer, mainstream brand. They don’t know anything about technical stuff, and they don’t care either. As a computer professional you should start learning this, as this is what people want and what people will pay for.

AOL and Compuserve both started out as BBS’s before the WWW took over.

I was a Sysop on Compuserve back then, and although the screens were simply text-based the Forums were very well maintained, had all the same structure and there were no pop up ads to deal with.

Easy to get started, and also is far different then the standard ‘net’ that the users are intimidated enough as to stick with what they know (AOL)

Those were the days! Before viruses, spam and popups. When men were men and sheep were nervous. :smiley:

Before the days of Yahoo! and Google, Internet Explorer and Netscape, good content was hard to find on the internet.

AOL put it all into nice little organized links that were easy to work through, so it made it very nice for laypeople to use the internet. AOL was also the first player to understand that the game was all about the number of subscribers you could sign up as fast as possible. They invested piles of money in marketing - first with floppy discs in magazines and in the mail, later with the CD’s. AOL outmarketed Compuserve and others and became the first national “brand” associated with the internet. The growth of AOL was staggering for about 5 or 6 years starting in about 1991.

Once browsers and search engines came along, and with content exploding, AOL became redundant somewhere in the mid-90’s. Many people are just slow to change, and comfortable with what they’ve always had.

For a long time it was there, it was easy and most people didn’t care enough about computers to investigate other options.

It’s the same reason people with broadband still use Internet Explorer. It is no longer one of the best browsers, but many people just don’t care. It’s there. They don’t want to discover new options because they don’t need new options. Even though they can easily download a safer, more feature-rich browser, they just can’t be bothered.

Once AOL was installed, everything the non computer-savvy individual wanted to do was right there, in their face.

“As a automotive professional, this is sort of embarassing to admit, but I don’t get Kias at all. Why and how do people actually use the things?”

The average computer user doesn’t care about the things a professional cares about. They want something easy and obvious to get email and shop on Ebay. AOL provides a minimally adequate way to do this.

Barb and I were “remote service providers” – hosts of chat-area “programs” – games and use-your-imagination programming – and “PCGuides” – for which read moderating staff – on PCLink, one of the three hardware-based ISP services which they owned before consolidating them into AOL – we had to resign due to the costs of accessing the nearest Internet node just as they announced the merger and the name of the new service. (We still supposedly have a comped AOL account, though we can’t access it.) The other two QCS (AOL) services were AppleLink (for Apple users (no Macs yet, though it was on the horizon) and QLink, for Commodore 64 users – which was the largest of the three services!

You have to remember that there was effectively no Internet outside the military and college campuses at the time. One could access dial-up services that were stand-alone units, providing whatever services and forums they provided but without enabling one to connect to anything else, much less have your own webpage, e-mail, etc. If you wanted to get e-mail from an AOL member, you signed up with AOL; from a Compuserve member, you signed up with C$; likewise Prodigy and a couple of other services that have gone the way of the dinosaur.

It was – barely – possible to send a document online as a plain-text file. But only to someone using the same service as you.

What made the Quantum (AOL) services special was the fact that instead of a text-based BBS, they had an actual GUI that was interactive. At this point Windows was stuck at Windows 386, and a 386 PC with 2 MB of ram and a 20 MB hard drive was the top-of-the-line machine.

I had an account with Prodigy – brought to you by a partnership of IBM and Sears.

Strange, ugly service…

I was there for about two years.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the Straight Dope’s original home was on AOL before it moved to the World Wide Web. Cecil’s columns and the associated message board were part of AOL’s exclusive content.

AOL is/was sort of “Internet Plus”: you got user-friendly access to e-mail, newsgroups, and the WWW, plus AOL’s exclusive content, message boards, etc. (like the Straight Dope). Nowadays AOL doesn’t have as much in the way of exclusive content—probably nothing that doesn’t have at least a rough equivalent on the Web somewhere.

Well, a lot of the Time Warner associated magazines have moved their websites to be available to AOL subscribers only. I think that counts, don’t you?

AOL is anything but cheap. $23.95 a month for the same service a local dial up ISP can give for $14.00 a month and the same ISP’s include a set up disk that’s a no-brainer.

Folks aren’t aware of their choices and should check out The List

Much of AOL’s earlier appeal came from things that are increasingly less important to most users.

In the days when modems needed to be initialized with text strings, an online service that did all that stuff for you was a godsend to a great many people – even those who were relatively tech saavy but just didn’t want to deal. Now PnP simplifies this and all ISPs are pretty much load the disk and go.

As already mentioned, in the pre-internet days, AOL had comparatively large amounts of content, and large numbers of public forums to amuse and entertain.

They also have have the largest and most far reaching dial-up network around. If you’re travelling, even internationally, there’s AOL dial-up available. This is becoming less important with broadband taking over.

There are a number of people who stay with them because they’re used to them now, they like them, or there some odd little feature they don’t want to do without.

So where does that leave AOL now? It is trying to remake itself in a couple of ways.

First, it is still trying to make the complicated things easier for the average user. A lot of this has to do with built in safety / connectivity tools. Server side anti-virus, PC-side anti-virus (costs extra), firewall, controls for kids accessing online stuff, spam blocking, etc.

They’re also trying to become a one-stop clearing house for lots of online content that’s either not readily available, or costs extra, etc. So you can get CNN content, music videos, online concerts, radio, etc.

All that said, I think most people probably use it for basic dial-up connectivity, as an email program, as one of many available sources of online content, and a web browser to get to the stuff that’s not on AOL. Oh yeah, plus IM (but that can be had for free elsewhere).

Or aged 70 and named CelynDad. :slight_smile: Still from answers in this thread I can now see why it became so , ahem, popula. Lots of heavy marketing at the right time, it seems. And even at this time, Fred and CelynDad sigh up for it.

Ah, a question, if I may hijack. My own ISP, of course, would like me to go through its own entry way and read all their ads and so on, but I kicked all that off, and use a simple dial up then use browser of choice. Last time I was at parent house, I tried to make the same cnvenient arrangement with the AOL stuff but, well, i couldn’t. And there is a limit to how far I want to mess with Dad’s machine.

It finally occurred to me that AOL might have arranged things so as NOT to let people do that. Would that in fact be the case?