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Resistance is Futile

AOL’s purchase of Time Warner sends shivers down the Internet spine.

by Mark D. Johnson
January 13, 2001

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Resistance is Futile_Mark D. Johnson-AOL’s purchase of Time Warner sends shivers down the Internet spine. America Online is the largest Internet service provider in the nation with about 29 million members, and with this week’s approval of AOL’s buyout of media giant Time Warner, its empire just grew a lot bigger. With the new acquisition, AOL will have an easier time developing new integrated technology such as video conferencing over Time Warner’s existing high-speed cable pipeline and will undoubtedly have more clout in the marketplace. While the regulatory commission that approved the merger laid out some restrictions that will force AOL to make some technology compatible with competitor software, there is still reason to be concerned about AOL’s increasing dominance.

Aggression with a Smiley Face

It’s not hard to understand how AOL became so popular. It was well established by the time the World Wide Web became a huge phenomenon, and its easy-to-use interface and personable style that tells you when “You’ve Got Mail” was attractive to a largely non-technical population that was just starting to understand the phrase “information superhighway.” Besides e-mail accounts, AOL offered its own little world wide web, with various sections devoted to business, travel, and so on, and exclusive deals to put some popular magazines online, along with chat room technology.

AOL still advertises its user-friendliness and community setting, though other systems are just as easy to use, if not easier. Yet with offers of 100 free hours, the AOL community continues to grow. And for those who only want access to e-mail, one AOL pricing plan restricts users to three hours a month for only $4.95.

For all its friendly promotions and happy customers, however, the company has shown it is not beyond Microsoft-style tactics in making sure they come out on top. Most notably, AOL restricted use of its popular Instant Messenger (AIM) feature to other AIM users, blocking out the similar ICQ system (which is now part of the AOL Time Warner family). AOL’s previous acquisition of the Netscape browser showed that they are not just fighting for survival, but for dominance. That merger was beneficial to both companies, but Netscape users will now find AOL software embedded with their browser whether they want it or not. And chances are you’ve installed some new software on your computer and found a new shortcut to AOL membership on your desktop. But really, it is not this kind of tactic that upsets the anti-AOL crowd, it’s the product behind the smiley face.

Community with a Curfew

AOL adores its less savvy members because they are more likely to stay within the AOL interface and browse among its contents than go out on the larger web through a browser. That is what they’ve dreamed of all along, but then came the dot-com explosion and at risk of letting its captives escape, they had to provide better interaction with the web in order to keep up with the times. And since AOL’s browser technology couldn’t match Netscape or Microsoft, it opted to purchase the former company.

AOL’s goal is still to get its members to spend as much time in the community as possible. There is even a pricing plan for people with existing Internet access to join AOL for its other online services. But a self-contained structure like AOL is at odds with the whole concept of the Internet at large and the World Wide Web. Though the regulators may ensure that some new AOL software is compatible with other software, the company will still be focused on bringing more into their fold and to get them to “stay home” as much as possible. While it is hard to fault that as a business strategy, the smaller dot-coms and independent-minded consumers can only look on in dismay.

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