July 2, 2013 Last Updated 1:04 pm

AOL launches new iPad app that is heavy on media, light on community

AOL-app-icon-smI hate to say it, but I fondly remember the days of being an AOL member. AOL 2.0 was released in early 1993 and I had a small Mac sitting on my desk at McGraw-Hill and found that I could waste an enormous amount of time logging in. One couldn’t do it quietly, like today, thanks to that damn dial in, but spent far too much time online at a time when hardly anyone else was “online”.

From 1992, when AOL had less than 200K subscribers, to the time it hit 25 million users, AOL spent over $300 million on CDs that were mailed or inserted into magazines. During this time AOL went from obscurity to a household name to a movie title.

It took another decade for it to become a company that now means less than the sum of its parts. Brands such as the Huffington Post, Engadget and TechCrunch and loyal readers, but when you think of AOL itself what do you think of?

AOL-iPad-emailIn fact, AOL itself is a media group and its new iPad app reflects that. The app could be from the NYT or any newspaper with its boxy collection of news items.

The app is free, as is AOL, in general these days. The company is completely advertising driven today. I don’t really approve of this strategy, which is ironic because as a publisher I’m pretty pro-advertising. But I hate the idea that an incredibly successful paid subscription model has gone by the wayside.

Of course, it had to be this way. What built AOL at the beginning, is what destroyed it – it’s ability to create, maintain and foster community. Besides e-mail, that was what made AOL great.

When I first became a paying AOL customer the first thing I did was have to create an e-mail user name. I was scared about being so public so came up with the most obscure thing I could: henrycow. If you know who Henry Cow you are in on the joke, and automatically a kindred spirit. But for everyone else it was dada.

But what drove people to AOL at first were the community areas: Dungeons & Dragons, chat rooms, private rooms (watch out), user reviews, etc. It was fantastic, and definitely worth paying for in an era where TV didn’t cost a fortune, and few had mobile phones.

While many people think the Internet killed newspapers (they are wrong), it is very much true that the Internet killed the old AOL. By the time AOL merged with Time Warner the writing was already on the wall. Internet Explorer may have been released in 1995, but it wasn’t until IE6, released in march of 1999, and included in Windows 98 Second Edition, that browsing could be seen to be killing off online services. AOL added the Netscape browser at some point that I don’t remember, but it was a sign that users no longer wanted to locked into AOL’s little world, no matter how wonderful early users felt about the original walled garden.

Today’s new AOL app is very well done. I will admit that I find AOL’s app development pretty good. The problem for most users today, though, is that the app is really an ad deliver system – like a cigarette is a nicotine delivery system. The content is simply not that good and is meant to surround the ads. And that content isn’t, to be frank, as addicting as a cigarette. Aggregated content and bloggers don’t get readers very excited. That the app doesn’t incorporate Patch in some way is a sign that the company is not operating as a cohesive media outlet.

But still, it’s a pretty good app.

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