Remembering AOL, You Ungrateful Punks

Fruit flies live longer than human memory. It is in our nature to focus on the here and now, not the there and then. This is doubly so in the tech world. It is literally our job to create obsolescence. So it is easy to forget the importance of tech companies that have come before us. What a shame. We all grow from the seeds of harvests past.

The consumer internet as we know it was built on the back of a small handful of companies. Without question one of those is AOL. Simply put AOL was the way people around the world accessed the internet. At it’s peak, AOL had 27 million subscribers, dialing up to discover content, connect with friends, shop. It was as ubiquitous then as Facebook is now, probably more so. AOL’s 2000 merger with Time Warner was valued at $350B. In today’s dollars that is the equivalent of Comcast and Google combined. You can fit Uber’s latest paper valuation inside that actual deal 10 times.

AOL is now being acquired by Verizon for $4.4B. It will probably be chopped up for parts; AOL will go the way of the Roman Empire. A powerful legacy that is so complete it is easy to overlook. Sadly instead of an Irish wake there’ll be snark, lots of people will say it’s about time. Ungrateful punks. AOL turned hundreds of millions of people on to the web. The entire industry is the beneficiary of that success. Steve Case invested his billions in new generations of startups. Ted Leonsis financed the transformation of downtown DC. Now that’s a legacy.

We should spend less time on the arbitrary unicorn club and remember businesses that were transformational for more than their arbitrary, ephemeral paper valuation. Tonight I am going to drink good scotch and rest my glass on my vintage AOL CD coasters. Thanks, AOL. We owe you.


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