Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another One for the AOL DUH List

It is absolutely incredible how much AOL has lost it's way. In times gone by, AOL single-handedly made "on-line" cool with their flagship service. Another component of AOL, Netscape, practically defined the current Internet experience. Yet look at them now. The ISP part of the business is going away. No more "You got mail!" followed by that screechy modem sound. Netscape went from being the premier (and coolest) browser and one of the best Web servers to being eaten alive by open source products. Both have been transformed into lame on-line web sites who's only real value is in their storied names. It's like having a skateboard from Lincoln-Mercury. Not the same and a sad reminder of what was once a couple of great companies.

Business gurus and high tech pundits will analyze this one to death for years to come. Was it the misguided merger with Time-Warner? Was it Steve Case's ego? Maybe both. However, one factor I'm sure of - AOL forgot what is meant to be cool. As proof I offer you the latest atrocity from AOL. None other than the AOL Toolbar for Firefox.

It's kind of ironic that AOL has a toolbar for Firefox. It's a sad admission that they really don't do technology anymore. It's also not the toolbar itself that is the problem. It's just a toolbar. Use it or don't. Like it or not. What really shows the less-than-happy place that AOL lives in right now is the entry for it at the Firefox Extensions download site. Now, it is customary to put up a paragraph or two to describe what the extension does. That's just polite. Besides, if people have to guess what it does, they won't use it.

AOL, on the other hand, was not happy with a simple description. Nope. Not them. Instead they have (and I'm not making this up) a 4195 word, 7 page entry. Now, you may well ask yourself "What the heck could make a simple toolbar extension entry this long?" An End User License Agreement commonly known as a EULA, that's what. I'm not making this up either. It is a EULA that has 22 sections not including the introductory paragraph. What could be more offputting than that? Maybe the warnings that Canadians put on cigarette packages but the Canadian government doesn't want people to use cigarettes. Presumably, AOL made this toolbar so that people would use it and want to go to their site, making their advertisers happy. So what's the thinking here? Did someone say "If we put a huge batch of confusing legalese in the entry, people will love it"? Or "The computer geeks that love Firefox, can't wait to read 7 pages of legal documentation!" I can't imagine being at the meeting where this was proposed and not laughing out loud.

What this shows is how little cool is left at AOL. I would also have to question their product strategy if this is part of it. Some might argue that software, even consumer software, is no longer about cool. It's all about brand and fashion, like sweaters. Maybe I'm old school but I don't think so. Look at Google. They exude "cool" from their very pores and have a massive market valuation to show for it. That's why people still use their sites, despite all the ads, and why "to google" has become a verb.

I think that if AOL becomes a verb it will be more like "What an AOL you are!" Or even better "EULA AOL!" Not too cool.

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