aol.com, Kara Swisher

Random House Times Business, 1998, 333 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-8129-2896-2

As an experienced computer user (I started in 1983 with the Commodore 64, graduated to the IBM PC five years later, went on the Internet in 1993, got a Comp.Sci. degree and never looked back), I’m the type of person who finds inner peace and contentment in poking around the Machine itself rather than to be simply contented with using it for other purposes. My computers are open more than half the time, my Operating Systems are customized, my head is full of intricate procedures to coax the last possible unit of performance from my system… I must face the blight of being a nerd, someone as interested in How It Works than What It Does.

I’m not the type of user that America Online wants.

This online service has made its fame and fortune by grasping what most technically-oriented companies were slow in understanding: The average users don’t care about technology. They want the benefits without the hassles. They want everything to be as simple as possible. And, by most standards, AOL has delivered what users wanted, opening the Internet to hordes of users without the kind of hard-won civility that comes from accessing something after a considerable amount of effort.

For all of these reasons, I don’t like America Online. They could disappear tomorrow with nary a qualm from me. But it’s not essential to like AOL to like aol.com.

This “biography” of America Online begins at the very beginning, with the foundation of a company in the early eighties by an entrepreneur with too many ideas and too little common sense: Bill Von Meister. After an extended limbo where the company repeatedly changed names and incarnations, AOL finally hit it big in 1993, with more than 500,000 users. But the drama wasn’t over: The following five years would find AOL struggling with growing pains, the arrival of the Internet, a more techno-savvy audience, a massive nineteen-hour shutdown and a huge commercial battle with Microsoft. Every year, another crisis seemed to engulf the online service, which has already been declared dead more time than it can recall. But AOL has always survived-for better or worse.

Wall Street Journal reporter Kara Swisher brings this whole story to life in aol.com, meticulously chronicling the history of AOL up to the beginning of 1998. Despite Swisher’s collaboration with American Online for research -she was reportedly granted unprecedented access to the company for more than a year-, the result is sharply critical of some of AOL’s biggest blunders. She does know her material, even if the spin she puts on a few elements (like James Exon) tends to be grating to seasoned online veterans.

Though the book tends to concentrate on anecdotes rather than analysis, the writing is easy to follow and fun to read. The incessant crises that rocked AOL during most of its existence make for good drama and Swisher doesn’t have to dig deep to find fertile material for her book.

The organization of the book is also irreproachable, at the exception of two chapters at the end, both detailing AOL’s battles with the American government’s efforts to censor the Internet. These two chapters are unexplainably split and offer repeated information, though their payoff is sweet: The diskette used to relay the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the government’s Communication Decency Act from the judges to the Internet was one of the ubiquitous AOL diskettes distributed across the country!

Despite all its virtues, aol.com couldn’t manage to make me like America Online, but certainly convinced me to respect it. The Little Online Service That Could should, by all rational standards, be dead now. But it endured and the story of its success is well-told in aol.com.

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