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Whither AOL?


Oct. 7, 1997 -- The headline that appeared recently on many computer screens in the Boston area was enough to give anyone pause.

"VICIOUS MURDERS: Death Penalty Time?" it asked. Then it added incongruously, "HUB THEATER GUY: Answers your mail."

Many people undoubtedly wondered: What does the "HUB THEATER GUY" answering e-mail have to do with "VICIOUS MURDERS". Theater critics are a mean bunch, but they're not quite that mean.

The answer is that this was just another day on American Online. The giant online service seems to have become a center of some of the most tasteless treatments of news stories imaginable, which get incongruously mixed together with marketing efforts and genuine news. Here, a sensational crime headline got seamlessly blended in with a tease for the theater columnist. In other instances it is references to sports or political events that get stuck together with headlines for stories about gruesome crimes or public scandals.

Here's another one from America Online: "PREDICT SCORE! Patriots will win by? NEWS: Alleged killer filmed dope promo." A third, about a young victim, was too insensitive to use even as an example.

America Online offers its members a steady stream of this stuff, constantly conveying the sense that malevolence and human suffering are just another part of the fun of online life. The routine use of capital letters and exclamation points, the invitations to members to post messages on the guilt or innocence of people in the news, and the focus on extreme situations, leave one with the impression that AOL is engaged in the online equivalent of hyperventilation. Nuance, thy name is not AOL.

But the cavalier treatment of real events is only one of a legion of problems that afflict America's most controversial Internet service. Another is the fact that it tells members virtually nothing about itself and the issues surrounding its service. While Internet news sources frequently buzz with controversies involving AOL, the online service itself usually reveals news about itself only when it has no choice. And what it does say is so full of indirection and missing information, it reads like an army of attorneys and publicists agonized over every word, before releasing it to the public.

Meanwhile, one of the things AOL does offer are marketing ploys disguised as forms of customer service. There are all those efforts to tell members how to protect their computers, for example, which always seem to turn out to be promos for Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus software. Also as part of its marketing efforts, it besieges members with full-screen advertisements that interpose themselves between users and the pages they are trying to get to. The ads can be turned off, but many people don't know that.

AOL has other problems, as well. While the Internet sizzles with hot graphics, for example, its graphic interface is dull and washed out, with content located in only a window in the center of the screen. And despite improvements, it often fails to create pages that are clearly labeled. It still hasn't figured out, for example, that if you offer readers a link to some feature, the link should actually go to the feature, instead of going to other sets of links that may eventually lead to where readers thought they were going.

Many people, by now, know how the company has managed to succeed so far, despite its shortcomings. The answer is that it made an appearance early in the history of this industry; it blanketed the country with diskettes and CDs to connect people to the service, and it benefited from the fact that many people had no idea where else to go. And it has managed to package news, chat, an Internet connection, and other services successfully enough to have something of value to offer customers.

When you add all this up, it is obvious that it has been primarily marketing-driven and only very secondarily customer-service-driven, which has been the secret of its success and the cause of its problems. The overall sense is of a company with an exploitive attitude toward its customers, a sense that is heightened by recent revelations that AOL reserves the right to keep a record of where members go on the Internet. Unfortunately, many members are unaware of this invasion of privacy, as they are about many other important things having to do with the online service.

But, today, things are beginning to change, as the developments sweeping the rest of the Internet force AOL to take notice. You see, AOL has figured out that the money is in being a content and service provider. The future is in information, not hardware. So AOL is now focusing on the formula it made successful in which it is a creator and compiler of content and links, and a provider of services like chat rooms.

The problem is that everyone and his brother-in-law out on the Internet is also becoming a provider and compiler of content and links, and a provider of services like chat rooms. The reason is obvious: if you get people to come to your site, you can charge the most for your advertising space.

CNET, for example, is one of the web's two primary computer news services, but it is now providing a page called Snap! Online, a brighter and more timely version of AOL's main page, full of content, news sources, and links, which are being used by many Internet Service Providers as a start page for customers. Similarly, Internet Explorer 4 is a browser but the browser now offers channels that can take content from major sites right to your desk top. It also offers various ways to display links so you can have it all laid out like a virtual buffet. When you put IE4 and Snap! together, as many are doing, you've got something that is a pretty good facsimile of an online service, with live content and good graphics. With these and other similar efforts, suddenly many AOL customers will know where else to go.

Ah, but AOL offers chat (all-too-often, mind-numbingly boring chat -- but that's another story.) And chat has been one of its strengths. But Snap! offers chat. Yahoo! is an index of sites, but it offers chat. Heck, the convenience store down the street will be offering chat in a year. So much for chat.

Ah, but AOL offers numerous channels of its own content. Yes, and traveling through many of them has been like exploring the lost areas of the city in the movie Logan's Run. Much of it has been dead content that just seems to be hanging around the basement of cyberspace.

Ah, but AOL offers a browser, based on Internet Explorer 3. But the browser interface really isn't as good as the original IE3. And if you try to go out onto the Internet with IE3 itself, (or with IE4), AOL counts you as inactive and keeps trying to disconnect you. The only way to stop it from trying to disconnect you is to keep calling up AOL's interface and clicking its own links, to fool AOL into thinking you're active, when in fact you really are active but it refuses to acknowledge it.

So AOL's problem is that what it offers people is only of mediocre quality, by today's standards, and it really doesn't understand how to hold on to customer loyalty. And it is now becoming possible for people to find the same or better services, at no cost, no matter who their Internet Service Provider is, as much of the Internet begins to offer a more structured experience that is more like newspapers and television.

AOL is responding by rolling out what Chairman and CEO Steve Case refers to in a recent message as 'The Next AOL," which will be "a series of initiatives designed to make using AOL even easier, more useful and more fun." It involves improving existing channels of information and offering new channels that will be constantly updated to make things more dynamic and timely. AOL is also upgrading the browser, and so on.

It might work. AOL could find a way to boost itself up once again. But if that is to happen, it is going to have to start looking and acting like the best of the web or else come up with something unique that works. If it sticks to anything like the current model of service, it could begin to experience a rush of customers heading toward Snap!, and other parts still unknown.


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The screen-capture at the top of the page is one part of AOL's previous graphic interface, which consisted of (and still includes) a welcome screen and a channels screen, along with a news and local screen. The link will take you to the online service's web page.

   

This provides a good view of Snap! As you can see from the reference on the left side of the screen, Snap! is being packaged with Internet Explorer 4. The link will take you to a CNET column on Snap!, with a link to the service.

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Here are some screen shots of the new AOL, as it was re-created soon after the column above came out.

aolnews.jpg (50950 bytes) This view of AOL's main news section provides a good idea of the online service's new look.
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The front page didn't change much. The channels page, which was drab but classy looking, is now more contemporary.

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Local news on AOL from Digital City.

 

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