AOL -- the company that was once at the forefront of the Internet revolution -- is now at a crossroads. Will the company that was among the first to popularize online chat be able to reinvent itself in order to click with the savvier user of today? Or will it fade away, written off as a company that couldn't keep up with the ever-changing world of technology?
Until recently, AOL was best known as an ISP for those who knew little or nothing about the Internet. Many of its users were attracted to it because of its reputation as a family-friendly starting ground. On the other side of the tracks, more experienced users were often critical of the service, pointing to its "walled garden" approach, the software's tendency to override other applications, and the way AOL made it difficult for its users to quit the service.
But on August 2, 2006, the company surprised everyone when it announced that it would be providing its services free of charge. According to the company, it was just a part of its goal of putting AOL "back on a growth path." And on October 4, 2006, AOL introduced the beta of its new OpenRide software, which offers AOL adherents a new interface with which to check their e-mail, surf the Web, IM their buddies, and check out AOL's media offerings (music, video, etc.).
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It's a complicated history: A company that was once ahead of its time is now struggling to keep up with competition that was born years after AOL began hooking up its first users. And its gleaming image, once held up as an example of a company that knew how to deliver a desirable, quality product to families nationwide, is now tarnished due to poor customer service. Now, having eliminated its fees and introduced a group of new services, AOL is trying hard to catch up.
Begin At The Beginning
To understand AOL's fall, it's important to understand how it rose to such tremendous heights. (For a blow-by-blow account of AOL's history, check out our AOL Pop-Up Timeline.)