20 Years of AOL Annoyances and Foul-Ups

Once upon a time--two decades ago this year, actually--a startup called Quantum Computer Services changed the name of its moderately popular online service to America Online and added a cheery e-mail notification recorded by an employee's husband: "You've got mail!"

As the 1990s progressed, the company lived up to the promise of its new moniker, doing more than any other to introduce the country to the online world. As the Internet took off, it served as the most important on-ramp to what was often called the Information Highway. And although today's AOL is no longer the country's dominant ISP, its services and sites add up to the fourth most popular property on the Web, from instant-messaging kingpin AIM to muckraker TMZ.com to video engine Truveo.

Over the years, it's also found a remarkable number of ways to drive both loyal customers and random bystanders bonkers, shooting itself in its corporate foot again and again through everything from monumental technical glitches to willful strategic decisions. Herewith, a 20th-anniversary retrospective.

Discworld

AOL software disk
It's hard to fathom today, but in 1993, most people had never heard of AOL--it only had 250,000 subscribers. And even if they had heard of it, they didn't know how to get it. Then direct-marketing maven Jan Brandt convinced a skeptical CEO Steve Case to spend a quarter-million dollars sending out floppy disks with AOL software and a free trial offer. It worked. So they mailed out more. And more. The company ended up distributing millions of floppies and CD-ROMs; just how many has never been disclosed. They showed up in your mailbox. They were bound into your favorite computer magazines. They were stacked up at retail-store checkouts, doled out in high-school cafeterias, and inserted into cereal boxes. In short, they were like pop-up ads--except that they intruded on your real life, and there was no way to block them.

The early floppies were kind of cool, since they could be reformatted and put to good use. Not so for the CD-ROMs. And before long, many of them cluttered up the lives of two groups of people who didn't need them: Existing AOL members and anyone who had no interest in becoming an AOL member.

Over the years, the omnipresent marketing freebies inspired both protesters and collectors, and showed up as a cultural touchstone in the darndest places (an episode of the animated TV show Futurama involved an earth-threatening meteor consisting in part of discarded discs).

Was AOL proud of what it had wrought? You betcha: When your author visited the company's headquarters in 2001, he walked down a very long hallway with walls plastered with framed discs, displayed as proudly as if they'd been Grammy awards.

Bonus annoyance: One late disc touted 1045 free hours over 45 days, which was an insult to the intelligence of anyone with the ability to do long division--if you'd taken advantage of every minute of free time, you would have had slightly over an hour each day to sleep or otherwise do anything but use AOL.

AOL Offline

A basic AT&T pay phone
It remains the online outage by which online outages are measured to this day. On Wednesday, August 7th, 1996, a switch upgrade at an AOL data center went awry and knocked the service offline for 19 hours, sending millions of users into withdrawal. Like a New York City blackout, it led the news on all three major networks and was both a unifying experience and a source of anger and despair.

In subsequent months, AOL suffered several similar-but-briefer hiccups, and got sued by customers who said it was failing to deliver on its promise of unlimited, flat-rate access. The company reacted by spending millions of dollars to improve reliability, which mostly worked--although it didn't eliminate glitches entirely. But none of the later blips had the impact of the 1996 meltdown.

In December, 1996, AOL moved from hourly rates to flat-rate pricing. Customers who were used to carefully monitoring their consumption began simply dialing in and staying on, maxing out the service's inadequate capacity and leaving other subscribers with busy signals rather than the squeal of a successful dial-up connection. It was a little like a restaurant instituting an all-you-can-eat policy and then running out of food on a regular basis.

It got so bad that Steve Case, in a letter to members, urged subscribers to treat AOL as they would a pay phone, so that it wasn't tied up when others might need it. Meanwhile, the company installed 30,000 new modems a month, eventually catching up with its customers. But not before then-archrival CompuServe ran a snarky commercial during the 1997 Super Bowl advertising its new toll-free number: 1-888-NOT BUSY.

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