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.

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 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.

And so, despite everything, I stayed with AOL for its e-mail. And there I stay today.

Laziness, Comfort the Biggest Factors

OK, that's the long, suspect version. Here's the short, truthful one. I'm lazy. I have never changed my e-mail account because it is too much trouble to switch all my records, notify everyone on my mailing list, and learn a new password.

More than that, even though I am utterly dependent on e-mail, I don't want to have to think about it ever again. Getting my e-mail from AOL is now so automatic, so embedded in my subconscious and my fingertips, that I merely have to think about my mail and somehow I find myself there. And I like that.

Now, as you may have read, AOL is bleeding customers and is about to institute -- five years too late -- free e-mail and other services. The press has made much of the fact that AOL lost nearly 1 million subscribers in the last quarter alone.

Here's what I say: There is no sane reason why us 18 million AOL subscribers still remain -- except for stupidity and inertia. I plead guilty to both.

Who would have thought that the first great Web application would prove to be the stickiest of them all?

And now, starting tomorrow, AOL is going to give me my e-mail for free. Great. Now I can return to my happy intellectual slumber and not have to think about AOL again for another decade.

Tad's Tab: The latest from the teen tech trenches from my 15-year-old son, Tad Malone.

Despite the occasional concerns about accuracy, I love Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created by users themselves. I can sit for hours looking up topics ranging from number theory to Tony Sinclair (the foppish British club guy in the Tanqueray ads who turns out to be a Philadelphia actor named Rodney Mason). But what most people don't realize is that you can download Wikipedia onto your iPod and create the ultimate portable reference library. Note, however, this works only on the cheaper iPods -- iPod Photo and under -- giving you something to be smug about with your richer, Video iPod-owning friends.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.