A History of AOL, as Told in Its Own Old Press Releases

Big moments, little triumphs, and odd sidelights in the life of a 25-year-old online service.

By  |  Monday, May 24, 2010 at 3:16 am

Twenty-five years ago today, a company named Quantum Computer Services rose from the ashes of a failed startup called Control Video Corporation. It launched a dial-up online service for the Commodore 64 which eventually spread to Macs and PCs–one that became a lot better known after it was renamed America Online in 1989.

At various times to various people, AOL went on to be a symbol of meteoric business success, epic failure, unusually user-friendly software, remarkably customer-hostile marketing tactics, cutting-edge communications, flaky connections, and both the future and past of technology. In short, we’ve had a remarkably complicated relationship with this company over the past quarter century.

I’ve already written a snarky history of AOL that accentuated the negative. (That one was commissioned by PCWorld last year to celebrate AOL’s twentieth anniversary under that name.) So here’s a decidedly rose-colored retrospective of some major AOL moments as chronicled in documents which, by definition, describe everything in the most positive, least analytical light: the company’s own vintage press releases. Like all such releases, they were meant to have extremely short shelf lives. But they’re fun to rediscover, and can help us understand how AOL became AOL.

This history is decidedly incomplete. For one thing, the earliest press release I was able to dig up was released a half-decade into the company’s history. And I chose to conclude with the release announcing the company’s merger with Time Warner, since the post-merger AOL never struck me as retaining much of the original enterprise’s strange, fascinating personality.

In 1990, AOL wasn’t quite yet AOL–the parent company was still known as Quantum Computer Services, Steve Case was a mere executive vice president, and only its service for Macs was called America Online. This release announces something called Promenade, an online offering for the PS/1 home computer launched by IBM (which was co-owner of one of AOL’s principal rivals, Prodigy). Note that the unfamiliar, jargony terms “download” and “forums” are in quotation marks.

Yes, I know this release gets the name of America Online (which it mentions only at the end) wrong. The typo is there in the version I found on Highbeam Research, and I’d love to think that the America Online moniker was still so obscure that the company didn’t notice it messed it up in its own press release.

QUANTUM TO PROVIDE CUSTOM ONLINE SERVICE OFFERED WITH IBM’S NEW PERSONAL SYSTEM/1 COMPUTER.

VIENNA, Va., June 26 (1990) /PRNewswire/ — Quantum Computer Services, Inc., today introduced Promenade, an online service that will be offered with the IBM PS/1 computer.

The announcement of the PS/1 marks the first time that a home computer has been introduced with a built-in modem (a telecommunications device) and online services to provide families immediate access to live, interactive education and entertainment services.

“We developed Promenade based on what consumers said they were looking for in a new computer for the home according to IBM’s research,” said Steve Case, executive vice president of Quantum Computer Services. The results revealed that educational benefits were highly valued. To meet this need, professional teachers will provide live online classes to help family members learn how to use and expand the PS/1 computer. Personal and professional growth opportunities are made available through subjects such as foreign languages, accounting, gourmet cuisine and more.

Additionally, a complete online encyclopedia enables users to tap in to continually updated reference information. Nightly homework help tutoring sessions are available on many subjects, including English, algebra and history.

Family members can discover new software in Promenade libraries that feature more than 7,000 software titles. PS/1 owners can scan the software descriptions in the libraries, then in a simple, single-step procedure, “download” or transfer these software programs to their PS/1, for just pennies, where they can be used immediately.

To offer help with new software, Promenade provides online meeting places, or “forums,” where PS/1 owners can communicate directly with computing experts and leading software publishers. Forums offer computing tips and fast answers to individual questions from PS/1 owners.

Multi-player games on Promenade feature stimulating graphics and animation, and offer a “human touch,” since users play against other people, not just their machines. Families can share their hobbies with others from around the country in special interest clubs including sports, genealogy and science fiction. Nightly events feature comedy routines, trivia contests, game shows and more.

Promenade’s easy-to-use services are accessed through graphic, “mouse”-controlled software developed by Quantum especially for the IBM PS/1 computer. “The Promenade interface makes it easy for all family members to use the services, without dealing with the frustrations of complicated commands and functions. Yet the software is advanced enough to satisfy experienced users of online services,” according to Case.

Promenade’s interactive education and entertainment services will complement the services offered by the PRODIGY service, also included with the PS/1 computer.

“IBM is the first major hardware manufacturer to recognize the growing importance of linking the home computer with the outside world. By including a modem as a standard feature, rather than an expensive option, IBM has set a new standard for computer manufacturers seeking to meet the needs of home-centered lifestyles of the nineties,” said Case of Quantum.

Quantum Computer Services, Inc., founded in 1985, provides three online services for the consumer market: American Online, PC-Link, and Q-Link. Each service provides unique software to maximize ease of use, and contains a variety of communications, information, entertainment, computer enhancement and educational services. Quantum has established strategic business relationships with a number of companies including Tandy Corporation, Apple Computer, and Commodore International.

 
In early 1992, it wasn’t a given that the users of one online service could communicate with friends on other services. Actually, you kind of assumed otherwise–and when AOL opened an Internet e-mail gateway, it was worth mentioning thar you could respond to a message from another service simply by clicking “Reply.”
 

AMERICA ONLINE ANNOUNCES INTERNATIONAL E-MAIL GATEWAY

VIENNA, Va., June 3 (1992) /PRNewswire/ — America Online subscribers can now communicate with millions of people throughout the world by using an electronic mail gateway that connects to a wide variety of commercial and educational e-mail systems. America Online subscribers are not charged extra for use of this gateway.

The new e-mail gateway allows America Online subscribers to easily send mail and to receive mail from users of CompuServe, MCI Mail, AT&T Mail, AppleLink, Sprint Mail and other Internet-connected systems, without requiring a separate account on those services.

No cumbersome codes or commands are required, making this enhancement as easy-to-use as the rest of the America Online service. For example, to reply to a message coming from another e-mail system, America Online subscribers simply click on a “Reply” icon, just as they would if the message came from a fellow America Online subscriber.

“We’re pleased to announce the availability of this international e-mail gateway,” said Stephen M. Case, president. “We’ve married the ease of use and affordability of America Online with the power and reach of the Internet system. With a single subscription to America Online, people can now communicate with friends, relatives and business associates throughout the world. This brings our concept of ‘electronic community’ to a new height.”

America Online’s address in the Internet system is “aol.com.” Internet users who would like to request a free America Online software kit and set up an account, or get more information about America Online, can send an e-mail message to the following Internet mailing address: info (at) aol.com. Or they can call 800-827-6364.

 
For years, AOL liked to issue press releases trumpeting its subscriber growth. This early one went out when the company was morphing from an online also-ran to a rising star. 200,000 members was worth crowing about in 1992, but AOL eventually topped out at around 27 million users.
 

AMERICA ONLINE, INC. PASSES 200,000 HOUSEHOLD MARK

VIENNA, Va., Oct. 27 (1992) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. announced today that more than 200,000 households are now subscribing to the company’s popular consumer online services. This represents a 40 percent increase over the approximately 143,000 households the company had at this time last year.

“America Online is now among the nation’s best known and fastest- growing online services — all because of the loyalty and enthusiasm of our subscribers,” according to Stephen M. Case, president. “We’re deeply grateful for their support. We’re also pleased to have received highly favorable press coverage recently in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Business Week. As a result of growing momentum, we’ve added more new subscribers this month than in any other month in our 7-year history.”

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal compared America Online to Prodigy and Called America Online “the sophisticated wave of the future.” Last month, Business Week wrote that America Online’s “market-building approach has endless possibilities.”

 
AOL jumped on the mobile bandwagon early–although it did so by betting on Casio’s extremely short-lived, Newtonesque PDA the Zoomer.
 

AMERICA ONLINE IS FIRST CONSUMER ONLINE SERVICE TO EMBRACE PALMTOP COMPUTERS

VIENNA, Va., Jan. 7 (1993) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMER) announced plans to support the emerging mobile computing market through the development of a special edition of America Online for palmtop computers. At a joint press briefing held today at the Consumer Electronics Show, America Online said the palmtop edition of America Online will be built into the personal information processor to be sold by Casio Computer Co., Ltd. and Tandy Corporation starting this fall.

The palmtop edition of America Online will meet the needs of mobile computer users by offering services such as electronic mail (including a gateway to MCI Mail, AT&T Easylink, CompuServe, Internet and other leading e-mail systems), FAX, up to the minute news, stock quotes and portfolio management, and travel services. The America Online service is being enhanced to look and work like the full suite of applications offered on the Zoomer platform. The America Online communications software will be preinstalled in the ROM of this new device, so customers will have instant access to the online services.

“The growing demand for portable devices creates an opportunity for America Online to develop an affordable, easy to use service that can keep people in touch and informed,” said Steve Case, president of America Online. “We want to be the first to bring the benefits of mobile computing to online service subscribers, just as we were the first to bring graphical computing to the online world in the 1980s. We are delighted to be the communications solution for the Zoomer platform.”

In announcing the Zoomer project today, Tandy Vice President of Corporate Marketing Howard Elias said: “The momentum for this new product platform is building. By combining the technological, marketing and distribution expertise of Casio, Tandy and other developers, we will be able to design new consumer products which we believe will set the pace for an emerging market of hand-held portable information devices.”

 
Seventeen years later, it’s startling to recall that AOL didn’t release a Windows edition until nearly three years after the release of Windows 3.0. Then again, back then real men didn’t use online services with graphical interfaces at all–they dialed in via text-only terminal programs, as God intended.
 

AMERICA ONLINE IS FIRST CONSUMER ONLINE SERVICE TO INTRODUCE WINDOWS VERSION

VIENNA, Va., Jan. 20 (1993) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMER), today announced general availability of America Online for Windows, a full-featured, icon-based service that targets the rapidly expanding market of Windows users. The company said that the product is now available through both direct and retail channels and can be obtained by attending the Windows & OS/2 Conference in San Jose.

“America Online for Windows is the latest example of the company’s commitment to embrace new standards and technologies. As the first consumer online service to announce general availability of a Windows version, we are extending our America Online offering to a potential market of nearly 10 million Windows users,” said Steve Case, president of America Online.

America Online for Windows incorporates the powerful features of popular Windows applications including pull down menus, 3-D icons, tiling and cascading, multitasking, resizing, minimizing and more — making America Online familiar and easy to use.

The America Online for Windows Flashbar, a series of colorful icons, provides America Online members with quick, direct access to many of America Online’s most popular services including top news stories, stock quotes and Download Manager. America Online departments can also be directly accessed from the Flashbar.

A new Mobile Access feature will allow for more convenient access to America Online for those members who travel. This unique feature allows members to select and store multiple phone numbers for their most frequented destinations. With a quick click of the mouse, the appropriate local number will be dialed to reach America Online from any of over 700 cities in the United States.
America Online for Windows also incorporates many of the popular features that have led to the success of America Online’s DOS and Mac-based services:

— The Download Manager, a tool to store selected files from any of over 30,000 software files across the service for downloading at any time. The Download Manager also allows users to decompress files automatically or restart a canceled download where it left off.

— Popular communications features include an international electronic mail gateway that enables members to communicate with family and business associates via popular e-mail services such as AT&T Mail, Sprint Mail, Compuserve and Internet. Enhancements to America Online’s real-time interactive chat and instant message interfaces can also be found.

Sound is also available to America Online for Windows users. Members can send sounds while chatting (participating in an interactive session) with other members and hear when a download is complete or when a piece of mail arrives in their mailbox.

— Members of America Online for Windows will also find rich online and offline help to assist them in their explorations. Help includes extensive information about America Online for Windows’ new features and services complete with the ability to search help with a few key words and graphical representations of key areas.

— America Online for Windows software is now available at the Windows & OS/2 conference, or can be obtained by calling 800-827-6364 or visiting computer retail and book stores across the country.

 
In 1993, Americans who were online paid by the hour for access–and they paid quite a lot. AOL took advantage of a price hike by rival Prodigy to lower the cost of its cheapest plan, and cheerfully said in the press release that the idea was to become “the nation’s leading online service.” It helped! Note that the release also says that AOL expected that 90 percent of members would use no more than five hours of service a month. That worked out to about ten minutes a day.
 

AMERICA ONLINE CUTS PRICES; NOW LESS THAN HALF THE PRICE OF PRODIGY

VIENNA, Va., April 20 (1993) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMER) announced today a dramatic restructuring of its rates, aimed at establishing America Online as the nation’s leading online service. A fixed monthly fee of $9.95 will now provide access to all of America Online’s services for up to 5 hours each month. This is less than half the price of a comparable service offering from Prodigy.

“America Online has always been the best of the national online services,” said Steve Case, president of America Online. “Now it’s also — by far — the most affordable.”

America Online’s new pricing represents a 60 percent decrease versus the current America Online rates. America Online subscribers typically pay $25.95. With the new pricing plan, America Online subscribers will pay just $9.95.

The new subscription rate goes into effect on May 1. This positions America Online to be an immediate beneficiary of the turmoil Prodigy triggered last week with their announcement of a substantial price increase.

On Friday, Prodigy announced that it will now charge an hourly rate for its most popular services. Prodigy will continue to charge $14.95 per month and provide a set of “Core” services, but now subscribers will only get 2 free hours of “Plus” service usage; additional Plus usage starts at $4.80 per hour. A Prodigy subscriber using 5 hours of Plus service will therefore pay $29.35 — and even more if surcharged services such as software downloading are used. Prodigy also introduced a second subscription option, which provides no “Core” services and no free e-mail; under this so-called “Prodigy Value Plan,” subscribers will be charged at least $7.95 for 2 hours of usage, and at least $22.35 for 5 hours of usage.

By contrast, 5 hours of America Online use now costs just $9.95 — much less than half of the Prodigy rate, irrespective of which plan Prodigy subscribers select, and the America Online pricing is much simpler to understand.

America Online expects that 90 percent of its customers will not use more than 5 hours per month so they’ll just pay a fixed rate of $9.95. Heavy users will be able to purchase additional online time (beyond the initial 5 free hours) at the rate of $3.50 per hour. This rate — which will go into effect July 1 — applies 24 hours a day, and includes the cost of connecting to America Online via local access nodes located in more than 600 cities in the continental United States.

Prodigy subscribers can call America Online at 1-800-827-6364 to request a free trial package including free America Online access software and 10 free hours of online time.

“We’re rolling out the red carpet to welcome the thousands of Prodigy subscribers who are now seeking an alternative to Prodigy,” said Case. “We’re offering them a no-risk free trial because we’re confident they will find America Online to be more comprehensive and easier to use. They’ll also find America Online to be more affordable than Prodigy, now that our monthly fee is lower, we provide more free hours each month, and we have a lower hourly rate for heavy users.”

 
Another “we’re growing really fast” release.
 

AMERICA ONLINE SURPASSES 500,000 SUBSCRIBER MARK

VIENNA, Va., Dec. 13 (1993) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. (NASDAQ-NMS: AMER), announced today that strong consumer demand has propelled it past the 500,000 subscriber mark, an increase of more than 130 percent over last year. Almost 150,000 subscribers have joined America Online in the past 90 days alone. This strong momentum makes America Online the nation’s fastest growing online service.

“The word is getting around about the many benefits of joining America Online, and this enthusiasm is fueling our extraordinary growth,” said Steve Case, president and CEO. “Our goal is to become the nation’s No. 1 online provider by offering the most compelling mix of services through the friendliest interface at the most affordable price.”

Case attributed the subscriber surge to a series of strategic moves that together make it easy for consumers to try America Online and provide reasons for them to continue as subscribers. In the past year the company has switched to simple and affordable consumer pricing, formed strategic alliances with leading media companies to create a wide range of interactive magazines and newspapers, unveiled the Internet Center, expanded OEM/bundling to include most leading consumer computers, launched services for a wider range of access devices including Windows and PDAs and announced technology alliances to move America Online into the cable world.

“1993 has been an extraordinary year for America Online,” said Case. “We are encouraged by the momentum we are seeing in the market, and we believe we are well-positioned to prosper. We are the fastest growing provider of online services. We have created a system that is easy and fun to use. We have developed a technology platform that is scalable, flexible and efficient. We have assembled an experienced, energetic management team. We have established a corporate culture that fosters strategic alliances, and we have an ever-widening tapestry of alliances. We have demonstrated an ability to move quickly and seize emerging opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, we understand this new interactive medium can change the way we communicate, inform, educate, work and play, and we are excited about its potential. We hope our excitement — and the excitement of our 500,000 subscribers — will be contagious as we take steps towards creating a larger market for interactive services.”

America Online, Inc., based in Vienna, is the nation’s fastest- growing provider of online services. The company offers its more than 500,000 subscribers a wide variety of services, including electronic mail, conferencing, software, computing support, interactive magazines and newspapers and online classes. Founded in 1985, the company has established strategic alliances with dozens of companies including Time Warner, Knight-Ridder, Tribune, Hachette, IBM and Apple. Personal computer owners can obtain America Online software at major retailers and bookstores, or by calling 800-827-6364.

 
In 1994, Apple unveiled an online service for Mac users called eWorld. It was essentially a private-label version of AOL, and it withered away after less than two years.
 

NEW APPLE ONLINE SERVICES BASED ON AMERICA ONLINE TECHNOLOGY

VIENNA, Va., Jan. 5 (1994) /PRNewswire/ — America Online Inc. (NASDAQ-NMS: AMER) announced today that Apple’s new online services — eWorld and NewtonMail– were created using technology licensed from America Online. The two companies have been collaborating to build the platform for Apple’s online services since December 1992, when America Online granted Apple a non-exclusive license to use the company’s interactive services platform. America Online will receive a royalty based on usage of these services.

“We’re pleased to see Apple showcasing the fruits of this collaboration — eWorld and NewtonMail — at this week’s MacWorld conference,” said Steve Case, president and CEO of America Online.

“Apple’s commitment to the online services market should benefit all market participants,” Case told reporters at Apple’s press conference this morning. “As Apple begins to build modems into computers and evangelize online services, we anticipate rapid growth of the Macintosh online market. We expect America Online to benefit in two ways: through faster growth in the Macintosh segment of our own branded AOL service, as well as from royalties we’ll receive from Apple based on the growth of eWorld and NewtonMail.”

America Online has made substantial enhancements to its technology platform to support its branded service and its licensing strategy. This includes the creation of new customer features, enhanced publishing tools, and the globalization of the software and billing systems.

Case added: “America Online will begin exploring ways to capitalize on the enhanced technology platform we have developed. Our focus will be on establishing additional alliances that can enable us to serve new markets such as Europe and Japan. This should enable us to leverage our technology in these complementary new markets, while still focusing our internal efforts on expanding the America Online subscriber base by providing our target audience — consumers in the United States — with a broad array of services through a friendly interface at an affordable price.”

 

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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    Wow, even “mouse” is in quotation marks in the 1990 PR for PC’s. Of course, PC’s didn’t come with a mouse as standard for a few years after that.

    1990 is the year the Web was created, but it only ran on NeXT systems until 1991 or 1992.

  2. ecco6t9 Says:

    Ashes to ashes.

  3. joe Says:

    http://yfrog.com/165moqj

    ironic steve case / aoltw magazine cover

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    AOL was huge at one point, but the popularity of Internet portals has deminished in the past few years. While the company is still around and doing well, it is just not as popular as before.

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