Silicon Insider: AOL-aholics Anonymous

I don't remember how I first heard about America Online. The company itself was only a couple years' old at the time. I assume I visited the site, thought it was appealing, and signed up, mostly for the chance to get e-mail. I don't remember even using one of those diskettes the company used to confetti the country a few years later (eventually replaced by those ubiquitous CD-ROMs that seem to litter every post office and coffee joint in the worldb… until you need one). I may have simply downloaded the program from the Web site -- which must have taken hours in those days.

Anyway, that's how I got AOL e-mail. It's basically the same story as 30 million other people, though mine was likely a few years earlier -- which of course makes my case even more embarrassing. So the real question is, why did I stay with it?

Handling the Shame, Peer Pressure

I remember about a decade ago running into the well-known business author/venture capitalist/public speaker Guy Kawasaki at his office in Palo Alto. We'd known each other for a long time, and we were talking about something or other when he asked me for my e-mail address for his mailing list. I told him. "AOL??" he scoffed. "Dude, what are you doing still on AOL, for God's sakes? Nobody in Silicon Valley uses AOL!"

I remember placing my hand on my heart and saying, "I remain a man of the people."

We laughed and went on to something else, both of us knowing that what I said was bull. Still, the line worked well enough that I used it for years -- as if I could only be a true high-tech reporter if I shared the lousy access speeds, puerile home page and overpriced user fees with the hoi polloi of computer neophytes, senior citizens and the chronically duped.

The years passed. In fact, there was only one time when I seriously considered dumping AOL. That's when other services began offering fixed monthly rates while AOL continued to exploit us power-users with stratospheric usage fees. But, at the last moment, AOL caved, introduced a fixed monthly rate, and I didn't have to think about my e-mail service again for years.

For the next decade, even as I was hammering AOL in print for lousy service, killing Netscape, crippling TimeWarner and ripping off its part-time employees, I continued to use AOL e-mail. I had never really used AOL except for e-mail and as a portal to the Web, and as broadband came along, first at the office and then at home, I effortlessly shifted over to AOL.com simply as an e-mail portal. I never gave it much thought -- even when, four years ago in Africa, I went online after a month away … and found 1,800 e-mails, of which all but 35 were spam. I merely shrugged and started erasing.

With the turn of the new century, I once again briefly considered switching e-mail providers. But a survey of the competition only left me depressed. Writing a big profile of Yahoo for Wired Magazine, I suddenly realized that the company had merely become what AOL had set out to be -- and just like AOL, all Yahoo wanted to do was to use freebees like e-mail to draw me into its little kingdom, and then pull up the drawbridge behind me. Forget hotmail too, for moral reasons: Every sleazeball drug pusher and porn purveyor seemed to have a hotmail account. And, despite Tad's urgings, I wasn't interested in Google's Gmail -- having survived one Microsoft, I wasn't interested in subsidizing another.

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