AOL says they’ve changed?

You can dress a donkey up like a horse, but...

Updated 02-3-2007.

It’s a different plot but the story has the same ending: No matter how AOL dresses it up, they can’t make the donkey that their washed-up business is look a horse. The only thing that’s changed is their approach. Rather than siphon money right out of your checking or credit card account for their “ISP service” (a non-Internet protocol complaint proxy server that sends their browser straight to AOL content and ads) they’re betting you’ll visit on your own or install their free software so you’ll stay on their site clicking ads, which is how they plan on making their next fortune.

Their goal is exactly the same as it was the day they opened shop as a BBS called Q-link back in 1985: To get money away from you as quickly as they can so they can spend it on self-promotional nonsense that costs you more money in the long run. They do that by leading you by the nose to their web pages, where you click on their ad displays or those of their “partners” — sites used by to display third-party advertising.

They never gave up their old way of doing business, either; they still sell broadband subscriptions, for example (a partnership between them and certain ISPs involves layering their horrific software over your broadband connection at reduced rates — as low as $15.99 a month — and if you’re willing to sell your computer’s soul to the software world’s annointed Devil, it’s a good deal).

They still sell dial-up subscriptions, too, which they claim people “need” because they have no ISPs in their areas. I have readers from Hawaii who use other ISPs and from what I understand Alaska has alternatives, too, so I want all three people in the US who must use AOL to write to me. I’m sure there can’t be that many of you, so while you’re at it, please move anywhere that has a zip code and find a real ISP.

In addition to their subscription services they offer a slew of “premium” services, too, so don’t think they’re betting the ranch on ads alone. Here’s what they offer, at pretty high prices:

Premium AOL Services

  • Link2PC, $6.95 a month
  • Privacy Wall,$4.95 a month
  • AOL Music Now, $9.95 a month
  • Video@AOL, $4.95 a month
  • Education@AOL (five sites with different themes), $4.95 a month each
  • AOL Voicemail, $7.95 a month
  • AOL Call Alert, $4.95 a month
  • AOL by Phone, $4.95 a month


AOL knows better than to bet selling ads will turn a tidy profit over time so they’re keeping one finger in the ISP pool in case their new plans head south faster than they would like. In anticipation of permanent changes they’ll make if their ad-based revenue model ever takes off, here’s what they’ve changed.

Recent and upcoming changes

August, 2006

They started offering free downloads of their software (which can be used for free when you sign up for a screen name) and free email addresses on

September, 2006

They started giving away 5 GBs of free storage on recently acquired…but not before they ran the offer as a free trial for the first half of September and made you sign up with a credit card, and from what I’ve heard, they made it hard to cancel, the site is often offline or has connectivity issues, people lose their uploaded files all the time and the service sucks.

September, 2006

They started handing out addresses on The object is to get as many domain names from members as possible to resell at a fat profit. AOL will let you host some sort of crappy, ad-riddled “blog” or “site” using the name but if you abandon your email address or website the name reverts back to it’s rightful owner (AOL); they’ll resell it without your knowledge or consent to whoever they want for however much they can get for it.

While they might be trying to recreate themselves in GoDaddy’s image, don’t think they’ll resell those names cheap. Domain names are getting harder to find; certain auctions hawk names that can cost up to half a million dollars each, so there’s a lot of money in it for AOL…all made on your dime, of course.

November, 2006

They began pushing OpenRide, a browser with new technology that’s free with membership. It’s the “advanced way” to surf AOL, check IMs and email and flip through your picture and video collections at the same time. To accomplish this dizzying feat they created Dynasizer, a big shiny blue bead in the middle of their new browser that you “pull” with your mouse, causing each pane to shrink or expand in turn.

I gave it a test drive when I did my review of AOL’s uninstallers and it was horrible. First of all Dynasizer is not a web browser, it’s AOL’s browser. To find unique content you have to hit the built-in Google search engine or leave via address bar, which doesn’t open up a new browser for you. If they were honest, they’d call it “Closed Ride.” It used a lot of CPU cycles and processes on my PC, slowed it down and “gummed it up,” and it’s as hard to uninstall as 9.0 SE ever was.

January, 2007

They’ll offer Music Now through Napster instead of their own service because they’re losing money on it.

January, 2007

They’ll set up shop in Second Life. Second Life is a virtual world where you move through “places” like shops, cafes, and auditoriums using “money” to buy and sell real things (including “real estate”) and forge online connections you might not make elsewhere. AOL inserts themselves anywhere they think money’s calling their name, so they’ll start their “Second Life” off by selling premium services as hard and as fast as they can.

January, 2007

They partnered with Sony for an upcoming TV, the Bravia (featured at the CES show). The technology enables it to pipe in (also Yahoo! and Grouper videos) so you don’t have to go online to watch them. Content is limited to video from those services and the TV’s picture quality is said to be very poor.

January, 2007

They partnered with Haier, an obscure appliance company, to distribute a phone with SmartScreens made by their subsidiary Tegic (the phone was also featured at CES). SmartScreens technology enables it to play almost any kind of music or video file except Apple’s and to store and display pictures. I don’t like the phone – while I admire it’s capabilities, I think the branding and presentation are all wrong.

January, 2007

They partnered with Intellext to bring “safe” search results to schools. Intellext uses contextual search to give results from over 14,000 48,000 pre-approved websites (corrected number of websites in response to a comment which incorrectly claims I didn’t mention how Intellext gets results at all) as kids type “keywords” into documents. Is this a bad idea? Yes. Children are often easily distracted, and getting bombarded with results they weren’t looking for might reduce their concentration more. Plus the sidebar spits up every result they need while they do homework or write a report, lending an unfair advantage to kids who aren’t smart or willing to work for their grades.

The first comment also incorrectly claims that the article I link to for my Intellext info says displaying the sidebar is purely optional. That’s untrue. Maybe the other article he was reading had that information, but the article I read, from Information Week, did not.