A commentary about sports, media, and interpersonal relationships encountered throughout everyday life.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

AOL... Too Little, Too Late

This afternoon, I read through an New York Times article by Miguel Helft (linked here) about America Online's (AOL) attempt to 'fix' itself. The company is bringing in former Yahoo! Executive, Brad Garlinghouse, to straight-shoot the higher-ups and tell them what exactly is wrong with the former Internet juggernaut.

In his article, Helft describes Garlinghouse's new role with America Online:
"In his new role, Mr. Garlinghouse will lead the effort to expand the reach of AOL’s popular e-mail and instant-messaging services. He will also head the company’s Silicon Valley operations, which AOL plans to expand, and lead the West Coast arm of AOL Ventures, a unit in charge of investing in start-ups and spinning off businesses."
This description brought me back to my high school years, when everyone and their brother (literally) was on AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM). Yahoo! attempted to replicate this (Yahoo! Messenger) in the early new millennium, but failed to capture the momentum and, virtual, monopoly that AIM possessed. Essentially, AOL had something that everyone wanted in its AIM product.

When I went to college, AIM was replaced by face-to-face interaction. Afterall, the people with whom I "messaged" lived within a 3 minute walk of my bedroom... and I much preferred to talk to people in person while soaking in the sun than reading their text in my dim, cold dorm room. But this is not more than an isolated case. For me, AIM died when I went to college.

Once college ended and I came back home to Long Island, I considered myself a "messaging" free agent. There were a variety of tools at my disposal. AIM was still waiting for me... but I felt I had outgrown this "adolescent" utility. I looked ahead to the possibilities of Google's "gchat" and Facebook's Instant Messenger. It appears I am not alone, though. Helft continues as he mentions commentary of AOL Chairperson, Tim Armstrong:
"In an interview on Monday, Mr. Armstrong said that communications products, which include e-mail and instant-messaging services, remained one of AOL’s most important assets, keeping customers engaged and helping drive traffic to other AOL properties. But in that area too, AOL faces challenges. Its e-mail service was recently overtaken by Google’s Gmail, which became the No. 3 e-mail service in the United States, behind Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, owned by Microsoft."
I believe that Gmail did what AOL was afraid to do: they took off the training wheels. For years I've been trying to convince my mother to get rid of AOL because it was everything that's wrong with the Internet: it charged you for something that should be free and it over-simplified the Internet.

Not only does Gmail offer (free) e-mail service, but the iGoogle interface allows you to make
your homepage whatever you want. It's RSS Feed friendly and does whatever YOU want it to do. Want a video of goldfish eating to greet you everytime you sign on? Done. Want to see that kid singing "Chocolate Rain" when you turn on your browser? Done. Do you want your e-mail server to identify "work mail" and "family mail" before you even open it? Done.

Most of all... do you want all these options for free?

This is what AOL needs to grasp. Actually, this is what they needed to grasp, because they've begun a downward spiral. There will be some people who continue to use AIM and AOL, but this article's note that Google's Gmail has displaced AOL on the e-mail popularity list notes the beginning of the end of AIM's stranglehold on Instant Messaging utilities.

To conclude, it will be interesting to see what Mr. Garlinghouse brings forth to retrieve AOL from it's current rut. To be certain, it will have to be a somewhat novel idea because Google has essentially taken what AOL birthed... and made it better.

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