America Online: A Graphics Based Success Evaluation

By Michael A. Banks

January 1, 1992

In six years, AOL has become one of the top three consumer online services.

In the increasingly competitive online-service market, America Online (also known as AOL) may be one of the best-kept secrets. It's not as if the service's management and its members are trying to keep it a secret; rather, America Online has concentrated on a unique marketing focus that has, until recently, precluded extensive advertising.

With dedicated graphical user interfaces for several types of computers, AOL has grown in six years to become one of the top three consumer online services. (This author excludes Prodigy, since Prodigy does not consider themselves to be limited to the computer medium.)

America Online is operated by America Online, Inc. (formerly Quantum Computer Services, Inc.). Introduced in October 1989, America Online began as a service for Macintosh users. At the same time, Apple II and IIgs computer owners who were subscribers to the company's AppleLink Personal Edition service were provided with new software and converted to AOL membership. (AOL and AppleLink were preceded by a service for eight-bit Commodore computers, Q-Link. Q-Link is still operating and has dedicated following, but it is separate from AOL.)

A version of America Online software for MS-DOS computers was introduced in 1990. Based on Geoworks' Ensemble, a graphics-based windowing interface with icons and pull-down menus, the MS-DOS front end has much similarity to the Macintosh interface. MS-DOS users can use the mouse and function-, ctrl-, and alt-key combinations. A hard drive, mouse, and Hercules, EGA, or VGA graphics are required.

The Macintosh version supports MultiFinder, which means multi-tasking is possible for certain online tasks. America Online software is compatible with all Macintosh models that have at least 512K of memory.

Graphics galore

In all cases, the software is a dedicated front end, designed for America Online only. As with most dedicated front ends, AOL's software does its job very, very well. AOL places a substantial portion of the service on the disk, which is necessary because it is so graphics intensive. So, menus, some repeating text on the service, and graphics that frame text reside on disk. This generally speeds things up and makes features like color bit-mapped graphics practical. Without this twist, the service would be hopelessly slow.

The bit-mapped graphics (as opposed to the ANSI graphics used by many BBSs and some online services) have some hardware and software implications. Basically, graphics are faster and look better on high-end equipment (say, a Northgate 386 system with a Princeton Graphics Ultra 14 EGA/VGA, which is what this author uses to access AOL most of the time). This doesn't mean they won't work with lower-end machines; yours truly totes an 8088-based Tandy 1400 HD when on the road, to access AOL and PC-Link. Everything's just a little slower on the slower machine.

Marketing savvy

AOL sells and gives away both Macintosh and MS-DOS front ends by various means, including advertisements in computer magazines. However, most AOL software is distributed through bundling with certain manufacturers' computers and--as in the case of Geoworks Ensemble--by including it as a part of a software package. (The AOL front end and a sign-up kit are built into the Ensemble package.)

AOL has enjoyed tremendous success with this kind of marketing. This is no surprise, considering the company's track record with co-promotional marketing--two sister services are marketed in similar fashion. PC-Link signups are bundled with Tandy computers, and the DeskMate software that's a part of every Tandy MS-DOS computer contains a PC-Link front end. Similarly, IBM PS/1 computers are bundled with a sign-up kit and front-end software for Promenade, another AOL service.

America Online CEO Steve Case notes that these partnerships have have served the company well. (Case joined Quantum/AOL in 1985, when Q-Link was their sole product.) That, along with the use of a dedicated graphic front end--which Case says his company originated with Q-Link--is the foundation for AOL's success formula.

AOL partially merged three services--America Online, PC-Link, and Promenade--last year, combining databases and other services that were formerly hosted separately on their Stratus mainframe. Now, users on all three services, using Apple II, Apple IIgs, Macintosh, IBM PS/1, and MS-DOS computers, can exchange e-mail and have access to the same special-interest groups, software libraries, message bases, entertainment services, and so forth. (Promenade is an exception in certain areas. It is a custom service, keyed to the needs of PS/1 owners. As such, there are certain areas online to which only Promenade members have access. And, Promenade users cannot access some of the AOL services, because Promenade is coordinated with Prodigy so as not to duplicate Prodigy offerings. Prodigy is also bundled with PS/1 computers.)

Combining resources and linking members has greatly enhanced AOL. Members are especially pleased because they are able to communicate with more modem users no matter which "face" their software presents. The expansion has helped keep members online, and keep them active. Indeed, according to Case, the service is in some aspects larger than CompuServe.

Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, AOL has no plans to phase out PC-Link or Promenade. PC-Link provides an important marketing conduit, and also enables access to the system for MS-DOS computer users who do not have a mouse. Promenade is also important to the company's marketing efforts, and also serves as an important resource for PS/1 users. Q-Link is likewise here to stay.

The choices

America Online's services are organized into seven categories: Computing & Software, Entertainment, News & Finance, Lifestyles & Interests, Learning & Reference, Travel & Shopping, and What's New/Online Support. Figure 1 gives an idea of how these services are represented in AOL's graphical interface.

America Online features a sophisticated e-mail system that lets you review messages you've already read, copy them to disk, attach files to messages for download by the recipient, and check to see whether a message has been read. Fax and postal mail are also available, with a surcharge.

There are a number of real-time conference areas, referred to as "rooms" and "auditoriums." There's also an "instant-message" feature that lets you send messages of several dozen words to anyone online. Accessed by typing Ctrl-M, this feature also lets you check to see if a member is currently online. A systemwide member directory lets you see where a member is from, and, if the member has entered an online profile, read other information about that person.

Members are identified by "screen names," which also serve as e-mail addresses. Members can have several screen names at no extra charge (this author's names include Banks2 and Mbanks)--a feature that predates Prodigy's multi-user account feature.

Special-interest groups, called forums, provide message bases and their own real-time conference areas. Forums are probably AOL's most popular products. As with most services, AOL's special-interest groups cover specific computing, hardware, and software interests, as well as hobby, lifestyle, and personal-interest groups, ranging from science fiction to veterans' interests.

Forums also have software and data file downloads. Or, you can search for and download software and data or information files in a central area. (Note that not all forums' files are accessible from the central area.) There are different central software areas for MS-DOS, Macintosh, and Apple II computers. Computer-specific forums are likewise segregated and clearly labeled, so an MS-DOS user, for example, would be less likely to accidentally move into a telecommunications forum for Apple II computer users.

AOL's proprietary binary file-transfer protocol is fast, works with variable block sizes, and is error-free. Further, the software search setup AOL offers at its central software areas enables users to find what they're looking for fairly easily by specifying any combination of categories, a range of time, and/or keywords, as Figure 2 illustrates. The search facilities in the message bases are similarly well designed, as shown in Figure 3.

Computer enthusiasts will find more than just software and messaging; AOL is loaded with vendor-support areas. Macintosh users will find support areas for Claris and Microsoft, as well as MacWorld magazine, among other familiar names in their own support areas. The MS-DOS world is represented by Compute! magazine, Tandy, and many other vendors.

AOL's numerous other highlights include national news, weather, and sports information services; stock quotes; travel services like Eaasy Sabre; shopping with Comp-U-Store online and other vendors; computing and consumer news, features, and columns; and the Microsoft Small Business Center and Knowledge Base. Multi-computer and non-computer vendors such as LucasFilms Games and Kodak also provide product-support forums on AOL.

Of special interest in the reference area are Compton's Electronic Encyclopedia and Webster's Dictionary of Computer Terms. (The latter has an interesting feature: Members can add definitions to the dictionary.)

Another unique feature is National Geographic Online. The area features National Geographic and its companion magazine, Traveler. The educational National Geographic Kids Network is also hosted in the National Geographic area.

Among AOL's more recent additions are downloadable color weather maps. Provided by Weather Services Corporation, maps are posted daily. There are several types of maps, including precipitation (a general forecast map), and daily high and low temperatures. Each is in the form of a map of the United States, with color- and pattern-coded overlays and text information. A dual map of current and 24-hour forecast jetstream patterns is also available.

Of interest to those who take the broader view is the tropical-outlook map, which shows the West Atlantic coast, down to South America, illustrating air-mass movements, storms, and other features. WSC also posts maps that track major storms (like last summer's Hurricane Bob), as appropriate. A recent map is shown in Figure 4.

The maps average 75 seconds to download at 2400 bps, and can be viewed on Macintosh or MS-DOS computers. Shareware GIF viewers are available for download on AOL; GIFconvertor and CSHOW are recommended for Macintosh and MS-DOS computers, respectively. (This author also recommends Graphic Workshop, or GWS, for MS-DOS machines.)

Games people play

Online gaming is fairly popular on AOL. There are several "play-by-mail" games and single-player games. Of particular interest is "Rabbit Jack's Casino," which lets users play blackjack, bingo, and other games with other players, or against the house, in real time. A special add-on front, downloadable from AOL, is used to play the games. Figure 5 shows a hand of blackjack in the casino.

Perhaps the most popular online graphics games is "Neverwinter Nights," an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) game with an extended online "world" accessed by a downloadable front end. Neverwinter Nights is exactly what you'd expect in an RPG, complete with a group of characters designed by the player; an interesting story line; nice color graphics; and systems of "hit point," skill, and other means of tracking the status of each player's group. The front end was initially offered for download with no charge for connect time. Now, however, connect-time charges are not disabled. The game itself is accessible on AOL's Games & Entertainment menu.

Moving around

Navigation is via menu selection and mnemonic keywords (the keyword feature is invoked by a simple Ctrl-K). The MS-DOS software also uses several function- and control-key combinations for commands, like F3 to sign off and Ctrl-R to read to mail.

Getting there and paying the freight

AOL access is via SprintNet and Tymnet, but the network connections are transparent because the America Online software handles all elements of logon (with the exception of the user having to enter his or her password, for verification).

Connect-time rates are $4 per hour nonprime time and $8 per hour prime time, with a $5.95 per-month minimum charge. (The minimum charge includes the first hour of connect time each month. This charge is waived for the first month of membership.) This is a very good rate, considering the fact that it provides complete access to all of America Online's services--including software downloads, which are not included in some services' "flat-rate" fee structures.

AOL's What's New & Online Support department is free during evening and weekend hours. Usage during the daytime on weekdays is charged at the reduced rate of $4 per hour.

Members who call from Canada, Alaska, or Hawaii pay a surcharge of 20 cents per minute communications, for a total of $16 per hour (the additional $4 per hour for daytime weekday access is not applied to these calls).

What's next?

AOL adds several new products each month, most of them in response to member suggestions and requests. The form of the service is updated, too--in the form of new, easier-to-use, icon-based menus, for example, and improved database-search capabilities. AOL makes most of these changes on the mainframe end, but changes in member software are occasionally required to support changes. In this case, upgrade software is provided a little or no cost.

A number of service improvements are on the immediate horizon, from member's suggestions. Later this year, AOL expects to add 9600-bps access, multi-file downloading, and an e-mail gateway to Internet.

Look for AOL's membership to continue to expand, and perhaps eclipse one or two of its competitors. Thanks to its unique software interfaces, an ever-expanding sheaf of services, its responsiveness to member needs, and its partnership marketing, America Online may not remain "one of the best-kept secrets in the online world" for long.

For additional information, contact America Online, America Online, Inc., 8619 Westwood Center Drive, Vienna, Va 22182 (Phone: 800-227-6364 or 703-448-8700).

Michael A. Banks is a full-time freelance writer. Among his 30 books are The Modem Reference (Brady Books/Simon & Schuster) and, with Jerry Pournelle, Pournelle's PC Communications Bible (Microsoft Press).


Copyright Learned Information Inc. 1992