Silicon Insider: AOL-aholics Anonymous

Hi, I'm Mike and I have a confession to make: I use AOL Mail.

I know, I know. A Silicon Valley childhood, 30 years as a tech journalist … unforgivable. And I'll make it even worse: Six years ago, when I was running the world's largest circulation tech-business magazine, I assigned, edit and ran a cover investigative story describing how America Online screwed over all of its early volunteer Web masters that helped create the company.

Oh, and did I mention that I always thought that the AOL/TimeWarner deal was going to be a disaster? And ditto for AOL's purchase of Netscape?

In other words, I have absolutely no excuse whatsoever to remain connected to such a poorly run, technologically backward company, especially one with such a checkered history.

So, why have I stuck with AOL -- even as every other Web outfit started offering e-mail for free? Even when it took six minutes to load my e-mail on the screen as I sat two weeks ago in the business center of a hotel in Windhoek, Namibia? Even as my son Tad drags me in to show me on his computer how fast and spamfree his GMail account is? Even as I start each morning having to purge all my overnight e-mails from Nigerian con artists, porn merchants and drug peddlers?

Therein lies a story. I'll give you the long, slightly phony explanation first. Then I'll tell you the short, embarrassing but honest explanation after that.

Going a Long Way Back

The long version is that I signed on to America Online way back in the early 1990s when AOL essentially was the Internet. Being a good Silicon Valley boy, I had actually tried the Internet, back when it was still Arpanet, at SRI, Xerox PARC and NASA's Ames Research Center. At the time -- this was the early 1970s -- I thought it was interesting, but not very practical for anyone but government researchers. The e-mail program I saw at the time seemed even less promising, requiring a bunch of code to operate, and typically used only to send data or technical papers.

A decade later, as I was running around playing newspaper reporter, I noticed that more and more senior scientists and executives in the Valley were talking about the Internet. I assumed it was just the latest version of the old Darpanet/Arpanet technology ported over to the commercial world, but these guys assured me that there was this new technical overlay for the Net, called the World Wide Web, that made the process a whole lot easier.

As it happened, I had all of the equipment at hand, having been running a private newspaper syndicate sending my stories to the Boston Globe and other papers via a Hayes dial-up modem attached to my Apple III (another brilliant technology choice). So I gave it try. I tried lurking on the Well, but it proved to be a bunch of tiresome old hippies and Whole Earth Catalog types -- and I'd had enough of them in real life.

But then I found CompuServe, and suddenly the whole magical world of the Web was opened up for me. In retrospect, the Internet was a comparatively small and lonely place back in those days, but at the time it was a revelation. It was then that I first learned that some of my Valley counterparts were using the Web for a form of electronic mail, and I resolved to join them.

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