I Know How To Save AOL!

(See Also: 10 Newspapers That Will Survive The Apocalypse)

We found a manifesto in our inbox from “an ex AOL developer” on how to save AOL.  It’s a bit untidy, but it makes a few interesting, contrarian points.

  • The AOL Client was (and remains) popular, still “used by more than 28.6 million people on broadband and dial-up connections every day.”
  • Instead of deciding “we can and should become Yahoo++, make it free and rake in the ad dollars,” AOL should have kept the client. “Market it as AOL for Grannies if you want, as long as it brings revenues.”
  • Simultaneously, AOL should have continued to “develop multiple web brands, with or without AOL logo,”  under Netscape, ICQ, Winamp or AIM branding.
  • Steve Case should have never let Time Warner execs under the covers.
  • It’s not too late. AOL should go back to selling “A Premium Service, just like AOL used to market it. A choice between free Web Interface and AOL Classic experience for a modest fee. The content will be the same, it is the way that it renders that will make the difference.”

Here’s the whole thing:

Can AOL turn the things around? Maybe. But what and when went wrong?

A loosly joined rant that had been suppressed for years.

It was a watershed event. Tim Anderson brings Steve Case and Ted Leonsis to speak to AOL employees! Wow! I can almost hear Web 2.0 crowd scream: what century do they think they live in?!  And what do they have to say?!

According to Ted Leonsis blog the main message was “listen to your customers”. Or, how he succinctly put it, “manage to the Main street, not to Wall street”.   So, when did AOL turn its back on the customers? That depends on who you call the customers.

AOL did something right in the past if it managed to sign up close to 30M paying subscribers. At the peak of AOL success, the internal content rendered via the AOL Client Classic Interface (FDO) while the external web sites were displayed in the Client Internal Browser, a custom version of IE. The AOL Client as well as the Host servers were built on proprietary technology.  Whether you like it or hate it, it was a very fast and nimble experience, which was very important since the predominant connectivity was dialup.

Then, some 6 years or so ago, AOL made a strategic decision to change the format of all internal content to Web, with the ultimate goal to get rid of AOL Client altogether and replace it with a stand alone browser. The Client vs Browser debate, if there ever was a debate, was often framed as Free vs Paid content, or FDO vs HTML, or Proprietary vs Open technology, or, the killer, Dialup vs Broadband.  Usually it was all of the above combined. It was pretty much “who wants the dinosaur product powered by proprietary technology on the dying dialup when we could have the cool stuff like Yahoo based in standards and on broadband?!”. The outcome was clear: “we can and should become Yahoo++, make it free and rake in the ad dollars”.  

Another argument for the switch, and this was a valid one, was that AOL did not have any decent publishing tools for FDO. Only Rainman scripting language and VPD. That is Visual Publisher Designer for those who were born in the second half of the XX century. Which was true. But it was also true that AOL never invested a dime into development of those. When the content moved to Web format, AOL invested arm and leg into perpetual redesign of its publishing tools, from hundreds of custom tools to build every tiny rectangle on a Web page to Big Bowl to UNPT to Dynapub.  I hope it finally stopped there. The redesign of the publishing systems became a favourite sport at AOL. But I digress.

Somehow, everybody forgot that besides the AOL Flagship service AOL owned quite a solid set of Web brands: Netscape, ICQ, Winamp, AIM. They, however, were clinically dead. Before AOL bought Netscape, it was the leading web destination for the people at work. AOL shut it. At the time I wondered what made the AOL execs believe that webby AOL would be any different. The Compuserve was already pretty much what AOL all of a sudden aspired to be: a web based service. It was not exactly a smashing success either.

The fact that AOL was completely missing the whole web game is beyond dispute.  And something had to be done about that. But it is also beyond dispute that AOL did not have to move its Flagship Premium Service to the Web to compete in that space. Any or rather all of those web brands AOL owned could have been used to compete with Yahoo and the likes in the free and paid Web market.

Even today AOL Client software is “used by more than 28.6 million people on broadband and dial-up connections every day” (http://desktopblog.aol.com/2009/02/12/aol-has-launched-aol-9-5/) in lieu of a stand alone browser. And majority of those users have broadband connections.  The broadband vs dialup argument was a red hearing. The truth is, quite a few million people simply liked to use AOL client. And apparently they still do.

Every time an AOL content area would switch from AOL Classic interface to Web, you could read tons of unhappy posts by frustrated paying(!) AOL customers on the AOL message boards. People would exchange the links to the old content areas and would leave no stone unturned to continue the AOL experience they were used to and liked. To me it was obvious that AOL could have and should have done both – the Client and the Web. I could never get that either/or approach. Continue with the AOL Flagship Service, a very successful product, and play in the Web field with its other brands. 

Yet the decision was made to destroy AOL brand by switching it to garden variety Web. What was done to the AOL brand is a classic example of a marketing disaster, a story of destroying a successful product by unnecessarily reinventing it. Another “New Coke” blunder. The best thing you can hear today about AOL brand is that AOL==dilaup. AOL Web sites are getting rid of any AOL branding because it became toxic. AOL name was stripped off the name of the parent company itself. Sad.

In the push to imitate the hip companies of the day AOL created some text book examples of what may happen if a company ignores the needs of its paying customers. AOL used to be a Social Network long before the term was even coined. “The heck with the users, everybody is doing web and so should we! World hates the AOL dinosaur, we have to reinvent ourselves!”. Ironically, AOL recently had to buy a second tier Social Network Bebo for a stunning $850 million. Just to stay in the game. The “walled garden” made comeback.

Some more examples.  AOL had a proprietary Ad Server system. It was dismantled for the sake of serving “industry standard ads” from Doubleclick.  “We are losing the ad game! Advertisers want standards!”  So why not give them standards?! AOL dev weren’t dumber than folks at Doubleclick.  A few years later AOL had to buy Ad companies to eventually try to combine them under the Platform-A umbrella.   What could AOL dev deliver for  the money spent on those? One can only guess.   AOL ousourced a bunch of the  content areas, such as Travel, Shopping, [email protected] To only recreate them now and compete with those Web sites they gave own business to.

To sum it up, AOL killed a successful product, took its brand and tarnished own offerings to younger and hipper crowd with it. A no-brainer alternative was to keep the product and the brand (market it as AOL for Grannies if you want, as long as it brings revenues) and develop multiple web brands, with or without AOL logo.

One can only speculate why exactly it went this way. My highly speculative and subjective take is that the biggest mistake Steve Case made was not to fire every highly placed suit at TW when AOL bought them. To nip any mutiny in the bud. Not having done that, he lost the corporate game badly and had to go. And with him went the promises of interactive sitcoms, cartoons and other wonders the synergy of AOL interactive community and TW content was supposed to bring about. Those angry TW bosses who survivied took their revenge on AOL apointing various people from TV or TV related Web with the only goal to squeeze every single penny out of AOL. Ultimately they wanted to get rid of AOL, one way or the other.

Whatever the causes, it is the top post-Case AOL execs, the public face of the company,  who were drafting and implementing AOL strategy and operations. They had no idea what product they inherited and what to do with it. They thought they were selling dialup connectivity. To be fair, this misconception was amplified by the pundits and the web industry crowd outside AOL. The steps AOL management took were myopic, to say the least. For instance,  AOL invested in development of several FDO clients, an Open Ride technology while trying to become a pure Web company. It is like taking the furniture out of a house on fire and bringing some gasoline on the way back.

Another false mantra of the push to the web was “replacing proprietary technology with standards”. To be sure, Standards and Open Source technology are very good things. And it makes no sense to use proprietary or unpopular technology to do the things that everybody else does with the standard and free tools. Ironically, AOL Server was chosen to implement the AOL move to the Web. While it was made free and open (by AOL), hardly anybody else in the World used it. So when Apache was getting a new feature, AOL would either have its AOL Server developers code it or the engineers would just have to do without that feature. With the AOL server dev support headcount being in single digits, more often than not it was “just do without it”.  The ultimate irony was that AOL inherited the NES server from Netscape, which was quite in use around the World and even sold its commercial version quite successfully. NES was eventually killed.

By no means this should be interpreted as disparaging remarks towards AOL engineers. They are extremely talented and dedicated folks, some of the best in the industry. And they delivered some really great products. Nor do I want to start a holly Server or Programming Language war, not in the slightest. Everybody has their pet tools and comfort zones. In the adult world, the tools are determined by the business goals, performance, time to market, dev base, and cost. And industry adoption rate or market share.

The last one cannot be ignored if you run a large scale dev shop. And Ted Cahall was absolutely right to replace AOL Server/Tcl with the suite of tools that are widely accepted in the industry. If you develop the same stuff everybody else does, it makes sense you use the same tools they use. Thankfully, there is no shortage of those and they are free. And the speed AOL engineers adopted to the new environment is a huge credit to them. The professional skills marketability is also something to keep in mind.  The move allowed AOL management to outsorce the development to India and China at a completely different scale.  Why you neeed that many developers and why every web page you publish turns into a software development project is something I don’t want to touch here.

However,  what if you want to do the stuff nobody else does? One answer is “well, don’t”. And that’s the path AOL took.  But what if that stuff nobody else does can generate a revenue stream you need to survive? I am sure that coming from Google, Tim Armstrong appreciates the competitive advantage proprietary technology may bring if used wisely.  Google would have never become what it is without proprietary technology. And AOL proprietary technology and the brains behind it allowed AOL to add a million of paying customers every few months end of 90s/early 00s. And there was no dev done in India or China in those days.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make when I started this lengthy rant.

The numbers of Client usage and the opinions voiced by AOL customers suggest that some people will be willing to pay few bucks a month to enjoy the old style content rendering in AOL Client. Yes, I’m talking about the dreadful FDO. And to make this offer even more compelling this subscription based product can be ads free.  A Premium Service, just like AOL used to market it. A choice between free Web Interface and AOL Classic experience for a modest fee. The content will be the same, it is the way that it renders that will make the difference.

This product most likely will be compelling to only a certain market segment. Middle age and older folks come to mind. And possibly nobody would want to pay for it in 5 years. But even if that’s the case, I don’t think that 5 years of steady subscription revenues is something that can be overlooked in this economy.  Or I can be wrong and nobody cares about this stuff any more. That’s what marketing research is for. If I am right, AOL can put a nice “You said, we finally listened” spin on it.

What would it cost?  Depends on how you do it. Not much, if the content is separate from presentation. Publish once and display the same content on multiple platforms, AOL Client FDO being one of those. In the pure Web world the presentation often meant CSS and content HTML. That is not good enough.  There are new platforms emerging every day and who knows what markup languages or binary formats will be popular tomorrow. The content must be presentation neutral.

Different presentations are generated by applying different templates to the same piece of the content. The templates would target different presentation platforms and likely will be powered by different technologies. It is already being done when, for example, the same news article is sent to the browser and to the mobile, for instance.  A better example would be numerous Wiki implementations, when you publish the content in simplified Wiki markup and it renders everywhere differently on different platforms of today, plus on your kitchen toaster tomorrow. It was also done at AOL at one point with the Welcome Screen Convergence project, when the same data objects were rendered both in the Browser and on an FDO form.

The servers to render the content in AOL Client FDO have not yet been dismantled. You can still see the old AOL pages if you have them bookmarked.

Some Web engineers would love to feather and tar me for such a suggestion but the business is about customers, preferably paying customers, and not just a playground where the “cool things” are crafted.  Most likely, the only thing that Web engineers would have to provide will be the presentation neutral content feed. The rest is within the realm of the Legacy applications.  The lack of the legacy applications expertise at AOL could pose a problm though. Majority of the old timers left AOL to pursue other projects and careers. But this is the first time for the last 7 or so years when I feel that there may still be hope for AOL, that the company may again be hated for having the number of happy *paying* customers 10 times that of the nearest competitor.

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