A History of AOL, as Told in Its Own Old Press Releases

Big moments, little triumphs, and odd sidelights in the life of a 25-year-old online service.

By  |  Monday, May 24, 2010 at 3:16 am

Once AOL became the country’s biggest online service, it issued press releases telling the world that this continued to be the case. In three years, its membership had grown twentyfold.


VIENNA, Va., Nov. 7 (1995) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. (Nasdaq-NNM: AMER) announced today that it has exceeded 4 million members and continues as the largest online service in the world. A recent Odyssey survey confirms that AOL is the leader in the online services market with more members than Prodigy and CompuServe.

According to the Odyssey Homefront survey, conducted in July and August, America Online has now surpassed Prodigy and CompuServe to become the market share leader among commercial online services in U.S. homes. Thirteen percent of households with personal computers subscribe to America Online. Odyssey is the nation’s only independent market research firm dedicated exclusively to studying the complex and changing relationship between consumers, technology and at-home information and entertainment.

“As the market for online services continues to grow, consumers are picking AOL as their online service of choice,” said Steve Case,

Chairman and CEO of America Online, Inc. “Our success continues to be from the support of our member community and our ability to continue to make AOL easy-to-use, with a broad range of content, presented in an even more engaging context, with a strong sense of community — all at an affordable price.”

Back in 1996, computer magazines were known to preface mentions of 56-kbps dial-up modems with adjectives such as “blazing” and “torrid.”


DULLES, Va., Oct. 16 (1996) /PRNewswire/ — America Online, Inc. today announced that it plans to dramatically enhance the speed of its Internet online network, AOLnet, with its support for U.S. Robotics’ new x2 modem technology.

With this technology it will soon be possible for AOL’s members to make Internet and online connections using standard telephone lines at speeds

nearly twice as fast as those currently possible. Faster access speeds, whether for individuals or for the growing number of people who use AOL at their businesses during the day, are essential to delivering the most desirable multimedia experience complete with great content, sound and graphics.

By deploying the x2 technology, AOL will be able to increase the top speed of a U.S. Robotics modem for downloading data from 28.8 to 56 Kbps, thereby providing its customers with a simple, reliable and highly affordable alternative to installing an ISDN connection.

“We are excited to be working with U.S. Robotics’ new x2 modem technology to enhance and build our world class network and, through AOLnet, to be taking these exciting capabilities to our individual and corporate customers,” said Mike Connors, President AOL Technologies. “We are committed to the best technologies in the marketplace and we’re confident that AOL’s unique ability to deploy x2 rapidly and broadly ensures accomplishment of that goal.”

Ross Manire, Sr. Vice President and General Manager, U.S. Robotics’ Network Systems Division said, “As the world’s largest Internet online service, America Online has had a tremendous impact on the Internet. By implementing U.S. Robotics x2 technology for 56Kbps downloads we believe AOL will continue to bring more people to the Internet and increase the demand for online services. We look forward to continuing our relationship with America Online and working with them to provide new technology for their subscribers.”

AOL said it will be working closely with its wholly-owned ANS subsidiary, which manages the AOLnet system, as well as with U.S. Robotics to conduct field trials in December of x2 for customers in the New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC and Skokie, IL markets. Field testing will also be made available via an 800 number. Shortly thereafter, the company said it anticipates providing 56Kbps access in most metropolitan cities in the U.S., followed by service in Europe and the Far East.
AOLnet, which is now the largest worldwide dial-up data network, consists of more than 170,000 modems located in more than 700 cities worldwide. Said Connors, “AOL fully intends to continue expanding the number of cities, as well as the quantity of modems deployed in each city, in the months ahead to ensure that we maintain our market leadership in terms both of the amount and quality of access that we provide to existing and prospective customers.”

This next release is probably the most significant one here: By dumping hourly pricing in favor of a flat-rate plan, AOL changed online access from something people used sparingly into something you could gorge on. And gorge they did: The service, which already had a shaky reputation for reliability, was maxed out on a regular basis, despite all the capacity-expanding measures outlined in the release. (Steve Case was reduced to asking people to moderate their use during peak hours.)


DULLES, Va., Dec. 2 (1996) /PRNewswire/ — With significant subscriber growth momentum and a new move to unlimited use pricing beginning December 1st, America Online, Inc. (NYSE: AOL) has embarked on a major program to upgrade its system capacity and customer support services.

Robert W. Pittman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the company’s America Online Networks division, said that the world’s most popular Internet online service is gearing up to meet the surge in the demand generated by its recent pricing and marketing initiatives, as well as the introduction of new “best of breed” technologies and program offerings, by adding new network modems, expanding the system’s ability to handle e-mail and Web connections, and stepping up customer service staffing.

“The mass market is moving to America Online, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that our members have the best possible interactive experience,” said Pittman. “The investments we are making to upgrade our system capacity and customer support underscore this commitment. With our new unlimited use pricing, AOL offers the best value on the Internet and online, and we are going to continue setting the pace in the industry in rolling out compelling new content, technology and service features.”

Among AOL’s initiatives to build capacity and improve service:

— Since July 1, 1996, the Company has added tens of thousands of new network modems to AOLnet, the world’s largest dial-in network. This program will accelerate through the Spring with tens of thousands of new modems being installed monthly.

— AOL’s system hardware will double in size over the next six months — growing big enough to cover nearly two football fields.

— AOL has stepped up its ability to handle e-mail and service Internet access with additional expansion in the works. Since September, the Company has doubled its e-mail capacity and its capability to connect to the Web. Each day on average, AOL now delivers 7 million pieces of e-mail to 12 million recipients and supports up to 130 million Web hits.

— The Company has reduced regular maintenance time, despite the explosive growth in AOL’s membership, to under 1% of running time.

— The Company has increased its customer service staff to nearly 3,500 representatives and there are plans for more. AOL recently opened its fifth customer service center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

— AOL is educating new and existing customers on how to get the most out of AOL, through:

— a communications blitz to inform members of AOL’s new access numbers and its newly expanded 1-800 customer service line;

— a new online area — AOL INSIDER — providing updates on how the service is performing, what’s new and happening at AOL and helpful tips on how to have the best online interactive experience possible;

— for new members, the online area — DISCOVER AOL — providing a tour on how to make the most efficient use of the service based on their personal preferences;

— encouraging members to sign on during low-use periods by offering special new daytime and late night programming and chat rooms;

— teaching members how to use such special features like flash sessions to read and compose their e-mail off line.

New Plans Meet a Broad Range of Consumer Interests and Needs

AOL’s new $19.95 per month standard pricing offers unlimited access to the Internet and AOL’s own services. In addition, AOL offers other plans to appeal to a broad range of consumers, including:

— Advanced payment programs of $14.95 per month for customers who pay in advance for two years and $17.95 per month for those who pay in advance for one year;

— A “bring-your-own-access” rate of $9.95 monthly that offers unlimited access to AOL’s thousands of features to consumers who already have an Internet connection through school or work;

— A $4.95 light-usage plan that offers 3 hours of AOL monthly with each additional hour costing $2.50.

This is the only press release here not issued by AOL itself. Note that it came only six weeks from the debut of flat-rate pricing–by then, the service was already as synonymous with busy signals as it was with “You’ve got mail!”


DETROIT, Jan. 17 (1997) /PRNewswire/ — The following was released by Lionel Glancy, Esq., attorney for plaintiffs in class-action lawsuit against America Online (Nasdaq: AMER):

A class-action lawsuit was filed today on behalf of all subscribers of America Online against the company, claiming that America Online has consistently put its customers “on hold” because of inadequate capacity. The lawsuit alleges that America Online succeeded in stirring up demand for its services by enticing subscribers with low-cost unlimited usage, and then abandoning its subscribers. Lower rates have caused increases in AOL usage resulting in an overload in network traffic, frequent busy signals for dial-up users, and network failures, thereby frustrating all users’ ability to access the network and also making illusory AOL’s claim of “unlimited access.” The suit alleges people dialing in to use the computer service are unable to get through because of the inadequate number of call-in servers and other capacity of America Online. In addition, the suit alleges that once AOL entices subscribers with its low prices, customers become captive because of the inconvenience in switching to alternative Internet providers.

Lionel Glancy, one of the attorneys for the representative plaintiff, Mary Jo Miles, emphasized that “customers are not getting what they paid for. They can spend substantial time trying to get connected to America Online, only to receive busy signal after busy signal. America Online actually put ‘America on hold.'” Mr. Glancy also stated: “To the extent that AOL has recently made vague promises to add more dial-in access capacity by June, customers are still at risk of grossly inadequate capacity, and, further, AOL still will be wrongfully reaping tens of millions of dollars of subscribers’ money through June that AOL is not entitled to because subscribers are not getting on-line or are not getting access to the sites they want.”

One of the plaintiffs, Mary Jo Miles, a Ph.D. candidate, currently lives in Traverse City and is frustrated about her inability to use America Online, which she subscribed to so that she could connect to the Internet and communicate with her husband and friends who live in the greater Detroit area.

The suit seeks return of customers’ monthly payments, multiplied by the number of all AOL users across the country, estimated to be over 7 million. This would mean that subscribers are paying in excess of tens of millions of dollars for services they are not getting.

Mr. Glancy explained that “based on published reports, AOL can only provide on-line access to approximately 3 1/2 percent of its subscribers at the same time. This means that up to 96 percent of all subscribers sitting at their computers to use AOL could be denied access to the system they paid for.” Mr. Glancy also stated, “class-actions are necessary in cases like this, in order to protect consumers who would not have the resources individually to file suit. The class-action case was designed where a huge multi-million dollar corporation takes undeserved money for millions of consumers, leaving the consumers with no other effective way to have their rights protected.”

The suit was filed today in Wayne County Circuit Court. No trial date has been set.

Direct marketer Jan Brandt was the mother of the AOL demo disk, which the company distributed by the gazillion until it decided to gradually extricate itself from the online access business altogether. It’s not often that you see a company issue a press release about a magazine article that describes its marketing practices with phrases like “carpet bombing.”


DULLES, Va., Feb. 17 (1997) /PRNewswire/ – Calling her techniques an innovation in high-tech marketing, Upside Magazine today ranked Jan Brandt AOL’s Senior Vice-President of Marketing, as the number one sales and marketing executive in the country.

Brandt, the master mind behind mailing AOL disks into millions of households across the United States, has been the driving force in positioning America Online as the world’s largest online service provider, according to Upside. Since Brandt’s arrival at AOL in 1993, membership has grown from 250,000 to approximately 8 million, worldwide. Brandt pioneered mass distribution through targeted markets giving AOL the flexibility to shape and determine growth.

“You have to admit that they made it frustratingly impossible to get AOL out of your head,” say Upside’s editors. “Brandt’s carpet-bombing techniques have redefined the use of direct mail in the high-tech industry and pioneered the get-something-for-nothing marketing coups copied by Netscape and other Internet underdogs to achieve brand-name recognition in no time flat.”

“New mediums require different approaches to reaching consumers,” says Brandt. “The surge in America Online’s membership growth confirms my belief that when you give people a convenient way to try a quality product, you quickly develop a brand loyal customer base.”

Ms. Brandt has been with America Online since April 1993. From November 1988 to April 1993, Ms. Brandt was Vice President of Advertising for Newfield Publications Publishing (formerly Field Publications). Previously, she was founder and President of Brandt Direct Marketing and President and Chief Executive Officer of RPA Direct Agency.





9 Comments For This Post

  1. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    Wow, even “mouse” is in quotation marks in the 1990 PR for PC’s. Of course, PC’s didn’t come with a mouse as standard for a few years after that.

    1990 is the year the Web was created, but it only ran on NeXT systems until 1991 or 1992.

  2. ecco6t9 Says:

    Ashes to ashes.

  3. joe Says:


    ironic steve case / aoltw magazine cover

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