One of the longest-running rumors in tech (it dates at least to 2003) is finally fact: Time Warner has told the SEC that it plans to spin off AOL, thereby undoing the gargantuan, famously disappointing merger that put an aging dial-up service, AIM, Marvin Martian, and Sports Illustrated under one corporate roof. By way of unintentional celebration, let me steer your towards 20 Years of AOL Annoyances and Foul-Ups, a story I wrote for my pals at PC World. (Did you know that AOL took the name “AOL” in 1989? Neither did I, until PCW’s Anne McDonald told me. That was also the year that it first began telling users that They Had Mail!)
My story covers the ill-fated merger, outages and busy signals, cheesy marketing tactics, sleazy chat rooms, some really bad TV commercials, the infamous recording of an AOL rep refusing to cancel some poor guy’s service, the even more infam0us privacy problems relating to AOL’s publishing of search logs, and, of course, all those millions of demo disks. I had a good time writing it, but the experience left me feeling a little sorry for AOL, a service which, for all its self-inflicted wounds, did more than anyone to jump-start the online revolution. Maybe I’ll write a story about all the stuff it did right at some point.