AOL adds letterbox to walled garden

September 10, 2008

AOL adds letterbox to walled garden Remember the excitement when North Korea recently opened  its doors to allow in the New York Philarmonic? Well, the online equivalent is now taking place: AOL’s software will finally acknowledge outside websites.

When users log on to AOL, the welcome screen will now include access to web-based email such as GMail and Yahoo Mail, along with links to accounts on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Some younger readers may be scratching their heads at this point, wondering why AOL users couldn’t just access these sites by typing in the address or, heaven forbid, running a standalone internet browser. Well, they can and they do – it’s just that AOL seems to have only just figured this out.

(That’s not just a snipey line, by the way. AOL’s Sanjay Nayer wrote this week that “We realize that AOL.com is not the only web site that you use… we need to embrace [the] reality that you visit other sites.” So shocking did he find this revelation, his post’s title ended with two question marks and two exclamation marks.)

Believe it or not, there was actually a time when many AOL users didn’t actually visit web pages as such. Instead they restricted their surfing to the carefully selected content provided by AOL – and with news, e-mail, chatrooms and horoscopes all available, that was enough for many people, particularly when the most exciting web page of the time was named ‘Chewbacca Ate My Balls’.

AOL worked on the theory that it provided a ‘walled garden’ which users didn’t need to venture outside. It didn’t take long for this idea to become ridiculously outdated, and even the most cautious AOL users was tempted outside. Aside from logging on and checking e-mail (which became avoidable in the era of webmail and broadband), there soon became virtually no reason to even look at the content displayed through the AOL software.

While onlookers laughed at AOL’s naivety in sticking with the walled garden approach, it didn’t really become a problem until recent years when, with broadband prices dropping, the company switched its focus away from subscription fees and towards ad revenue. This explains the desperation to keep users clicking on AOL’s home page, whether through the AOL software or a traditional browser.

And as long as there are internet users who haven’t figured out such complex time-saving and convenience measures as bookmarks and webmail notifiers, it might just work.

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