Thousands of Americans were introduced to the World Wide Web through a now ancient service known as America Online. Others might have connected through Compuserve, a service that boasted exclusive content and a unique experience while also allowing users to connect to the new frontier of the internet. Back then the internet was a wild and vastly unexplored region, with locations based on animated gifs of men digging and lava lamps accentuating websites that offered little to no content. Users of content services such as AOL and Compuserve could see their providers as a lush oasis of data in a dangerous desert wilderness, offering them access to shopping, games, movie and television extras, and more. Subscribers had no reason to venture outside of the safety of the walls of AOL into the harsh barrens to brave an unknown website when AOL’s had such nicely packaged offering and strict control over content.
As brave pioneers ventured out past the safety of such services, the internet became a much more civilized place and websites became far more sophisticated, offering valuable content and a unique experience all their own. As this happened, AOL began to look more like an antiquated fixture than a bastion of content to be explored. It really didn’t take long for a vast migration of AOL users into the greater world that is the interwebs; AOL became more of a joke than a service, with punch lines like “Yeah if you’re my grandmother” or “built a fort out of stacks of AOL CDs.”
Yeah, I just painted an over-simplified and romanticized view of AOL and early internet history but there is some truth in there. AOL sought to build a user base off accessibility and exclusivity, offering content to compete with the internet and draw users to its platform. Companies had to stretch their early web presence between emerging web sites and AOL/Compuserve zones, often creating a less than exciting experience in both. iOS has been making that same push since it landed just a few years back; using strict content control, accessibility, and exclusivity to build a user base and buffet it against the dangers of the wild wild web.
iOS is beginning to look much more like the early days of AOL, at least to me. iOS devices have always pushed users to “apps” over web based content, keeping the user focused on an experience that is exclusive to the device. Anyone can get the content on the web but only iOS users can use iOS apps. Exclusive content, games, and ease of access drive the fundamental experience that is the iPad/iPhone and all of their brother and sister devices. Including a web browser that restricts some forms of web content (like Flash and Silverlite) makes the comparison all the more easy. The idea of comparing the two, AOL and iOS, began while surfing the web on my iPad and being constantly bombarded with pop-up messages informing me that one site or another had released a free app that would make browsing the site either easier or some how better. At that point I started having flash-backs to my youth, on the computer monitor a familiar message, “Are you sure you want to leave AOL for the World Wide Web?” always asking when ever I wanted to check out a website not covered as part of AOL exclusive content. Asking me in such a way as to say, “Don’t go into that cold wilderness, you don’t know what’s out there. Stay here inside where it is warm and safe. Hey look! We have Nickelodeon!” Much in the same way that iOS is consistently nagging me, “Why beat yourself up out in the cold internet, come inside and use our warm safe apps. There is nothing on the web for you. Hey look! We have Adult Swim!”
In AOL’s formative years, time was valuable, each user paid a flat fee for their first allotment of hours (20, if memory serves) and after that the drip would start. Paying by the minute, a few extra hours spent playing card games or reading message boards might cost a few months’ allowance. Painful for a kid who had to make the choice between the fascinating digital revolution staring him in the face and money for dating or buying new comics. Ok, let’s face it, I just lied about the dating. iOS devices owners now face similarly troubling decisions as network providers begin to cap data usage and charge woefully high overage rates. Just a few more minutes spent tweeting or checking Facebook might cost the average person a latte or two.
I could get far more detailed in my comparison, but it’s not my style. For me it is enough to notice that there are glaring similarities between AOL and iOS, laugh about it, and then walk away. I could point out the speed at which Android (with its much more open app system and less stringent content controls) is overtaking iOS, or that more and more people are learning to jail break their devices to escape from the defined boundaries originally intended, but I won’t. As it is, iOS is a fruitful operating system with a nice selection of well-designed devices to support it. I, for one, love my iPad and will continue to use it until the next best thing comes along. But the day may come when the iOS and all of the i-devices will smell a lot more like a giant pile of discarded AOL CDs than roses. History often has a habit of repeating itself.