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A Brief History Of AOL

Verizon just bought one of the last big tech veterans from the pre-dotcom era. Here’s a timeline of its history stretching back to… 1983??

A Brief History Of AOL
[Photo: Flickr user Jason Persse]

Verizon announced today that it is buying AOL for $4.4 billion, probably to help Verizon better stream video online, especially to mobile devices, says The Washington Post. AOL is one of the only other pre-dotcom veterans, alongside Yahoo, to keep chugging along despite being left in the dust by younger tech juggernauts like Google and Facebook. Here’s a quick timeline of AOL’s fascinating history:

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1983: AOL begins life as Control Video Corporation, which was founded by Bill von Meister and had one product: GameLine, a service that hooked your Atari 2600 to your phone line to rent games for $1. Control Video Corporation went bust in a year, and was reborn as Quantum Computer Services to further develop its phone-data tech. Steve Case, later to become the CEO of AOL, is part of the 10% of employees who survived the rebirth. Case quickly rises through the ranks.

1985: Quantum Computer Services can’t let go of over-the-phone gaming, and it launches dedicated a online gaming service called “Q-Link” for the Commodore 64 and 128 game consoles. Three years later, Quantum Computer Services launches PC-Link and partners with Apple to launch AppleLink, both pre-Internet online services.

1989: Quantum Computer Services and Apple end their partnership. Quantum Computer Services renames itself America Online. Two years later, America Online for DOS is released, and a year after that, America Online for Windows.

1996: America Online leaves behind its pay-per-hour system for a flat $19.95 monthly fee for dial-up Internet. The modern Internet era begins. Millions of America Online trial CDs are repurposed as frisbees.

November 1998: America Online announces its purchase of Netscape, makers of the dominant browser of the era, Netscape Navigator.

2001: America Online and Time Warner merge. Things go sour almost from the get-go: company cultures don’t mix, broadband Internet eats up America Online’s customers, and the dotcom bubble annihilates the company’s stock worth from $226 billion to $20 billion. Thus begins the fall of America Online. A year later, CEO Steve Case is replaced by Jonathan Miller.

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2006: America Online ditches its full name to just be known as AOL, which the world had been calling it for over a decade anyway. Business is still struggling. A year later, AOL moves its corporate headquarters from Virginia to New York City, liquidating 40% of its workforce (2,000 people) in the process. CEO Jonathan Miller is replaced by Randy Falco. Many awkward acquisitions follow, like social networking site Bebo for $850 million (which Bebo’s founder bought back from AOL in 2013, for just $1 million).

March 2009: AOL hires former Googler Tim Armstrong as chairman and CEO. Two months later, Time Warner spins AOL back off as its own company. AOL goes on a shopping spree, buying Patch Media’s network of hyperlocal news cells (which Armstrong cofounded) and, in September 2010, buying technology reporting site TechCrunch and profile portal site About.Me.

February 2011: AOL buys The Huffington Post, and its founder Arianna Huffington becomes AOL content chief. Two months later, AOL cuts 900 employees as a result of the deal.

February 2013: AOL reports its first quarterly revenue growth in eight years. As The Wall Street Journal notes, this was due to AOL’s online advertisement revenue increasing above the rate of falling Internet subscriptions. Six months later, AOL buys video ad company Adapt.tv for $405 million. The strategy shift to online ads proves very successful–enough to knock Google out of first place at video ads eight months later.

January 2014: AOL sells Patch. Mass Patch layoffs ensue, and they are awkward. The hyperlocal media era officially dies.

February 2015: AOL kills venerable tech reporting site The Unofficial Apple Weblog. Tech veterans shed tears that Internet babies still suckling on smartphones don’t understand.

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May 2015: Verizon buys AOL for $4.4 billion in cash. According to anonymous sources speaking to Re/code, AOL has also been in talks to spin off The Huffington Post.