The Reinvention of a Web Pioneer: AOL Turns 25

The struggling firm aims to become the Internet's biggest newspaper

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It's hard to believe, but AOL turns 25 today. The iconic Internet pioneer--once known for its ubiquitous disc mailings and affable "You've Got Mail" voice alert--is in the midst of a rapid transformation. Weaning itself off the dial-up service industry, AOL wants to be the Internet's biggest newspaper--providing content and selling advertisements on a range of websites.

The trick will be reviving a brand that many associate with screeching 56k modems and the worst corporate merger of all time. Can AOL start anew?

  • It Must Reinvent Itself, says Tamara Keith at NPR: "Today, AOL still has about 5 million dial-up subscribers, and those subscriptions represent a big share of the company's revenues. But it's losing subscribers fast, at a rate of 3 percent a month. To state the obvious, AOL needs a new business model."
  • The Company Has Soaring Ambitions, writes Michael Rosenwald at The Washington Post: "AOL wants to be the biggest newspaper (and magazine and TV network and movie theater) on the Web, creating millions of pages of news, reviews, statistics, how-to guides -- any content around which it can sell ads. It has created or bought some of the most popular sites on the Web:, for gadget geeks;, for politicos;, for sports nuts;, for business news; and even, for fans of the world of professional fistfights... The AOL brand barely appears on any of these sites, an approach AOL executives confidently compare to Disney's unbranded ownership of ABC, ESPN and Miramax. The idea is to let each of the smaller, targeted brands create its own relationship with consumers."
  • It's on the Right Track, says Steve Case, AOL's co-founder and former CEO. He spoke highly of his successor, former Google exec Tim Armstrong: "Sure, [AOL] will be around for a long time. The question is, how do you return it to being a leader. I think Tim is on the right track."
  • The Transition Has Been Gut Wrenching, writes Jon Swartz at USA Today: "AOL has been working to recast itself as a large-scale content and advertising business... But the process has been difficult, with advertising revenue dropping throughout last year. Revenue for search and display advertising suffered double-digit percentage declines, and the company said it expects ad sales to continue falling for the rest of the year. That forced AOL earlier this year to shed 2,300 workers as part of a plan to slash operating expenses by $139 million through payroll cuts and exiting unprofitable businesses...It's all part of a roller-coaster ride for AOL, which has survived wrenching changes in a fast-paced industry that is maturing."
  • Forever Firmly Implanted in American Pop Culture, notes Marc Fisher at The Washington Post: "The screeching static of the dial-up connection will forever be wedded in many Americans' memories to the omnipresence of America Online in the early years of the web. From the movies to Saturday Night Live, the mechanized baritone catch phrase 'You've got mail!' was parodied and parroted for years--a recognition that in the pop culture, AOL was the Internet."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.