You’ve Got Mail

America OnLine

October 19, 2021

In the 1990’s the United States was enthralled with a new technology that had everyone saying “You’ve Got Mail.”

That was, of course, the genesis of the widespread use of electronic mail and no company better represents the era than America OnLine (AOL).

At one time these arrived in the house weekly – provided like candy to make sure everyone was a customer.

It was in the month of October 1989 when the company was named, formed out of what started as a gaming download application for the Atari 2600 in 1983.

The 1980’s was a time of innovation by hobbyists who purchased microchips, diodes, and capacitors from places such as Radar Electric – where I worked in the early 1980’s – and were building computers in their garages.

The company which became America OnLine changed hands, grew and expanded, finding its market niche through – particularly – schools. It was in the 1990’s, however, when it became a household name.

It was one of those success stories of providing the right product at just the right moment. But, as is often the case, their incredible success also contributed to their failures. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“AOL charged its users an hourly fee until December 1996, when the company changed to a flat monthly rate of $19.95. During this time, AOL connections were flooded with users trying to connect, and many canceled their accounts due to constant busy signals. A commercial was made featuring Steve Case telling people AOL was working day and night to fix the problem. Within three years, AOL’s user base grew to 10 million people. In 1995 AOL was headquartered at 8619 Westwood Center Drive in the Tysons Corner CDP in unincorporated Fairfax County, Virginia, near the Town of Vienna.

AOL was quickly running out of room in October 1996 for its network at the Fairfax County campus. In mid-1996, AOL moved to 22000 AOL Way in Dulles, unincorporated Loudoun County, Virginia to provide room for future growth. In a five-year landmark agreement with the most popular operating system, AOL was bundled with Windows software.

The screen which greeted users circa 1996

On March 31, 1996, the short-lived eWorld was purchased by AOL. In 1997, about half of all U.S. homes with Internet access had it through AOL. During this time, AOL’s content channels, under Jason Seiken, including News, Sports, and Entertainment, experienced their greatest growth as AOL become the dominant online service internationally with more than 34 million subscribers.”

Over the next decade internet users saw the emergence of aggressive competition from entities such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo!. And they started doing something AOL did not – they provided their service for free.

Eventually, AOL joined the ‘free’ club although they still have an ‘enhanced’ version diehard AOL customers pay for.

I personally cannot recall the exact year our family became AOL customers, but it was probably 1995 or 1996. We paid our $19.95 a month and soon we were connecting with parents, siblings, and friends, sending emails and messages.

My first email address was a combination of my maiden and married names and was only 10 letters long. The reason for this was that your AOL email could only BE 10 letters long.

I truncated my name to accomplish this which, over the years, has caused no small amount of consternation and confusion when I try to give my email to someone.

At the time I didn’t really care, I was thrilled to be able to send someone an electronic message since hand writing a letter and mailing it was a pain. And, with AOL, I could send and get mail within hours, rather than it taking days. Even better was being able to instantly message with someone while at my desk, typing on the keyboard.

The sound of the dialing phone, the screechy noise that the dial up modem would make in order to connect, and the ultimate words “You’ve got mail,” became quite Pavlovian. I had a small cadre of friends with whom I would communicate, a lifeline as I was a stay at home mom with two children under the age of 10 in those years.

A voice which was heard more than 35 million times a day during AOL’s heyday.

And so it went for several years until we changed internet providers and got a new email account. We went over to the dark side some 15 years ago, opting for a free provider.

Over time, I discovered that changing one’s email address- sort of like moving – invokes all sorts of headaches. The people who have your ‘old’ address will forget and send their message to that one only to have it bounce back or, worse, it ends up in some sort of email purgatory never to be found again.

Alas, technology changes and moves on and AOL is no longer the dominant force it was in the 1990’s. I feel certain, however, that somewhere across America some intrepid entrepreneur and visionary is inventing the next big thing which is destined to change the way we communicate. I just hope that we get a culture defining catch phrase to go with it.

My parents, sister, one of my brothers, and my in-laws all kept their AOL accounts… I think the thought of having to ‘move’ and tell everyone seemed like more work than it was worth. My dad paid the monthly AOL fee until the day he died. Not sure if my In-laws still pay for theirs or not. There’s a lot to be said for that sort of consistency. Eventually, the market pressured AOL into providing a ‘free’ email version which both my sister and brother still use.

Personally, I kind of miss being greeted with Elwood Edward’s “You’ve Got Mail” greeting when I sign on. The YouTube link below tells the story of how he became the voice of AOL. It’s worth the two minutes it will take to watch it!


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