They were on top of the world. The company had the most popular instant messaging client, by far (in the United States), the largest dialup service, and one of the top audio applications. AOL had it all and now, seemingly, they are trying their hand at a slow and painful suicide.
For my generation, AOL was the Internet as we all signed on for the first time. Even if you didn't use their dialup service, you absolutely had to download AOL Instant Messenger , so you could stay in contact with all of your friends. Let's face it: Cell phones were still way too expensive, so instant messages were the text messages of that time. It was almost a social faux pas to be in high school without a screen name. And, while you were there typing away and entering chat rooms your parents probably wouldn't want you in, you had to have some music playing. In came Winamp and, once AOL bought them out, it was an all AOL, all the time experience. So, what the heck is AOL doing now?
I think, and this is just a wild guess, that AOL is trying to commit corporate suicide. That's the only logical explanation for what the company is doing to itself. They never had much chance in the internet service provider department once dialup started to die. They simply didn't have any sort of infrastructure set up where they could connect you directly to the net, like the cable and phone companies could. They should have seen that, but they didn't. Instead, they rode that pony until the very end. That poor pony eventually gave up and, not only collapsed, but made sure to kick them in the teeth before taking it's last breath. I still wonder how much money they wasted mailing out all of those CD's.
Even if they did royally screw up with the dialup service, they still had a great opportunity with AIM and Winamp. Once the ISP aspect of their business went under, AOL decided to focus on content delivery supported by advertisements. This new focus was to be led by their IM client, AIM. The service already had a very loyal following, so all they had to do was make their software decent enough to convince people to use it. They failed. They epically failed. The AIM client was once riddled with spyware and then fell way behind other clients in terms of features. AOL decided to counter this with AIM 6.0, but now even that has fallen to the way side. It's been left in the corner like a scolded child. Development seems to have slowed to a crawl and, overall, they just make it so hard to care. Windows Live and Yahoo offer better looking clients and third party clients (Trillian, Pidgin, Digsby, etc) offer much of the functionality of the official AIM client with the added benefits of customization and connectivity to every other network out there. Why even bother with the official client?
Surely, though, Winamp could stave off the curse of AOL branding and leadership, right? I had always thought so, until recently. More and more, even that application seems like it's racing head first into the brick wall that most of AOL hit years ago. As is the case with AIM, Winamp's development has slowed considerably. On top of that, Winamp is starting to show it's age, a bit. Winamp was designed in an era when people used playlists to access all of their music. Now, with digital music stores and broadband access being the standard, people are shying away from playlists and moving towards library management. While Winamp does have this ability, it's not as powerful, pretty, or intuitive as what other popular applications now offer. When I open Winamp, I love the nostalgia, but part of me feels as though I'm trying to teach an old dog new tricks when it would much rather lick itself. It just doesn't feel right.
All in all, I just don't see how anyone can say AOL is even trying to stay afloat. It annoys me, too, because I've always liked the company. Up until recently, I used AIM and Winamp, but I just couldn't do it any longer. Why are you doing this, AOL? Are you scared of change? Are you suffering from self confidence issues because you're not the only cool kid on the block, anymore? Look, cut the fat, put your head back in the game, and give us something worth talking about. If you're not going to do that, can I at least have your stereo once you're gone?
"Bang On" is a regularly occurring column written by Christopher Vendemio. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Neowin.net