It’s impossible to have been using the internet at any point in the last two decades and not have heard of AOL, or America Online. It started life in the 1980s as Control Video Corporation, a project by Bill von Meister. Its initial product was a gaming service for the Atari console, where users could download and play games at the cost of $1 dollar each per gaming session.
By 1983, Control Video was almost bankrupt and was about to face great challenges. Two years later, the company was renamed Quantum Computer Services and only ten members of staff from the old team were still on board. Online service Quantum Link was launched in 1985, and was subsequently renamed America Online at the end of the decade.
Executive vice-president Steve Case presented America Online as the alternative service for people who were not particularly good with computers. Its competition at the time focused on providing services for the technology businesses, while America Online offered a accessible graphic user interface.
DOS and Windows AOL services were launched in 1991 and 1992 respectively. What was distinctive about their offering was their support of innovative games and their communications network. Perhaps not surprising given its beginnings, America Online was a huge supporter of online gaming, including launching the first automated play by email game. Its chat rooms also stood out from the crowd by having three main options: private rooms, conference rooms which were often moderated, and auditoriums, which required AOL approval and could host an unlimited number of people.
During the next few years, AOL nurtured numerous partnerships to create educational programmes with names such as National Geographic, Library of Congress and the Discovery Network. It even launched its own homework help service. There were a lot of firsts in their portfolio, including the first parents’ network, and the first children’s service.
As it grew in popularity, so grew the strain on its network, and many people cancelled their subscriptions because of poor service. AOL eventually moved headquarters to a bigger space in Virginia which allowed them to further develop.
A series of acquisitions and mergers were to follow from the end of the 90s through to the next decade, starting with the acquisition of Netscape in 1999. Further still, AOL announced it would merge with Time Warner, and the deal was finalised in 2011.
The noughties were a time for AOL to rebrand and adjust to the quickly changing online landscape during the dot com boom.
The name America Online was officially abandoned in 2006. It then opened its services to a wider market instead of subscribers only, which made some of them like the instant messaging service AIM incredibly popular. After a series of moves and with a shrinking user base, AOL bought social network Bebo in 2008 for $850 million, but sold it at a huge loss two years later.
After 2009, AOL refocused as a digital media company, acquiring some big names in the online news landscape such as TechCrunch and The Huffington Post. In 2013 it announced a growth in quarterly revenue, the first announcement of this kind in almost a decade.