Struggling Internet Pioneer AOL Turns 25

When you think back to the early days of the internet, it’s really kind of amazing to see which companies survived, and which didn’t …

In a year steeped in significant anniversaries for tech companies, one that has been largely ignored is the 25th of online pioneer AOL.

Today, the company originally known as Quantum Computer Services, which introduced millions of Americans to the Internet, is still around but not what it used to be.

Sales are declining and its subscriber base is dwindling as it copes with a slide in online advertising revenue and tries to recast itself amid stiffening competition.

AOL has been trying to reinvent itself as a content and advertising company since it regained its independence last year from media giant Time Warner, with which it merged in 2001. Time Warner spun off AOL to shareholders in December, ending what many experts called the most disastrous corporate merger ever.

Which leads to the question: Can AOL regain its mojo?

As the company enters Year 26 of its existence, its current CEO and one of its founders both think it can, as they reflect on AOL’s past, present and future.

“Sure, it will be around for a long time,” AOL co-founder Steve Case says. “The question is, how do you return it to being a leader. I think (AOL CEO) Tim (Armstrong) is on the right track.”

Adds Armstrong: “The AOL brand is still one of the most meaningful in Internet history. In many cases, it was (people’s) first (experience) online.”

America Online took consumers by storm in the 1990s as a dial-up Internet company. During its heyday, it helped redefine how people communicate, ushering in an era of PCs with built-in modems and chat-room conversations. It was even the subject of a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail, in 1998.

At its zenith, AOL had nearly 30 million members.

But its glory was short-lived in the fast-paced digital age. Dial-up business shriveled over the years as faster broadband connections…

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