AOL Watch: The Titanic

David Cassel (
Thu, 26 Mar 1998 13:31:04 -0800 (PST)

			    T h e   T i t a n i c


What's the difference between AOL and the Titanic? 

The Titanic only went down ONCE. 

AOL's half-hour outage Tuesday continues their once-a-month streak -- they
went off-line for two and a half hours in February and 30 minutes
in January.  AOL attributed Tuesday's middle-of-the-day outage to an electrical 
malfunction -- but problems lingered throughout the afternoon. ("Currently
members are not  able to send or receive e-mail..." an on-line warning
announced. "We expect to restore full functionality within the next two

Later AOL conceded that the e-mail brownout lasted over two hours. 
"Members were not able to send or read e-mail until approximately 3:00
P.M. EST," they reported optimistically -- adding "Some e-mail messages
may still be unavailable."  (A 4:00 announcement conceded that "A small
number of e-mail messages may still be unavailable.")

Nonetheless, next week, they begin asking users for more money.  "Would
someone please tell me again what justifies AOL's price increase?" an
angry user asked.  Another exasperated subscriber told AOL Watch "I try to
write a letter to complain" -- only to be told "Sorry, we are temporarily
unable to send mail.  Please try again later." 

"Why pay two dollars more a month for a service whose quality is going
nowhere but down?"  they asked.  In addition to outages, various AOL
features blip in and out of service on a daily basis, according to AOL's
in-house System Status reports.  ( ) 
With colossal bad timing, AOL returned to plugging their "My AOL"
magazine in the wake of Tuesday's blackout.  ("Save yourself aggravation,"
the ad announced.  "My AOL helps troubleshoot the most common user

But in an even more ironic twist, today AOL greeted subscribers with
pop-up ads displaying a picture of the Titanic.  "Can you re-write history
before time runs out?" it asked.  ( ) 
Others see the comparison, too.  "AOL -- our own Titanic today -- was too
heavy of a loss to overcome," a Motley Fool columnist observed last week. 
"The portfolio surrendered 0.53% mainly on the heels of a decline in the
largest position, America Online -- even though our other stocks swam and
kicked to get the portfolio above water..."

But C|Net's GameCenter points out the Titanic game AOL sells is actually
old merchandise, unrelated to the popular film (asking, "could anyone have
predicted it would refloat the sales of an adventure game that was
launched way back in November 1996?"),3,1546,00.html

Their reviewer called the game's characters "digital sock puppets" whose
heads "twitch and grimace and talk at you like demented animatrons from
the Hall of Presidents at Disney"
( ) -- giving the
game, on a scale of one to ten, a dismal 6.6.  (Other reviewers agreed. 
"If the ocean were as shallow as TITANIC's gameplay," a Computer Gaming
World columnist wrote, "the real ship would never have sunk." 
( ) 

Titanic merchandise has been good to AOL.  "When the Titanic soundtrack
was promoted on AOL's welcome screen, N2K sold 750 CDs in 20 minutes,"
Forbes magazine reports. But while AOL's Keyword "Titanic" points users to
"the Titanic Collection" at Barnes and Noble, Forbes also notes
significantly that "It's too early to tell if these multiyear deals will
be as good for its partners as they've been for AOL." 
( ) 

In perhaps the most unfortunate tie-in, AOL even installed their software
on the Celine Dion CD containing the theme to "Titanic" -- to the
annoyance of the singer's fans.  Users attempting to play the compact disk
on their computers find, instead, a pop-up window displaying AOL's logo. 
"Sony Music Corporation will send a free, new (audio only) Celine Dion CD
to anyone who wishes to use the music CD on their computer without all the
hassles," one computer technician reports. 
( )  Though Celine Dion sings "My
Heart Will Go On," Steve Case apparently feels "My software will go on --
your hard drive."  Users must decline the offer before they can play the

In fact, AOL appears more interested in marketing their service than in
providing services. Announcing the price increase, Steve Case argued it
was AOL's wide range of content which helped justify loyalty.  ("No other
service supplements basic Internet access with such a wide range of unique
context, content and community features," his February Community Update
claimed.)  But weeks later, AOL was also axing content.  Though The Hub
had enjoyed a channel on AOL's welcome screen, 24 hours after the New York
Times announced AOL's plans to close it, the Hub's keyword was de-activated. 
( )

Ironically, a caption Tuesday promoting the Hub's true-crime area read
"Bloody, buried, gutted".  But more terminations await other AOL
properties.  CompuServe described their free web forums ("C From
CompuServe") as "The Net's Best Thing." 

It'll be discontinued Tuesday. 

"With the recent shift in our corporate strategy to focus on one brand,
CompuServe, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to
discontinue the C from CompuServe Service as of midnight, March 31, 1998,"
reads an e-mail announcement planned for later today.  The site pulled in
"over 3000 subscribers," according to one in-house memo, but "Our current
plans are to fold the web-experience from C into our flagship 'CompuServe
Interactive Service' over the coming months..." 

Investors might cheer as AOL streamlines their service -- but
unfortunately, AOL's ongoing performance problems are affecting their
press coverage.  Covering rumors of talks with an internet TV company, one
ZDNet columnist added that "Considering the lousy job it is doing being an
online access company (the service is back up after another outage...),
AOL is wise to look around for alternative revenue streams."  
( )

After the February outage, AOL told Wired News that the backup system
which failed to prevent the outage was "one of the things we're looking
into." ( )  But
one month later, the problem apparently hadn't been found. 
(,4,20496,00.html )  And AOL's increasing
unattractiveness has emboldened their competitors.  Prodigy recently lowered
their rates (,4,20353,00.html ) -- and in
fact, for the cost of AOL alone, subscribers can now keep their AOL
accounts AND get full internet access through a new program offered by
Erols.  With a rate of just $10.95 per month for long-term pay-in-advance
customers, AOL subscribers could apply the remaining $11 to a
bring-your-own-access AOL account -- costing just $9.95 per month. 
( )  In fact, this results
in a savings of $1 a month...

After the price increase was announced, one AOL Watch reader summarized
their mood.  "Why on EARTH would anyone keep AOL after this new news?"  As
he saw it, all subscribers got for their extra $2 a month was "slow
internet access, CooL HaCkErS, and 40-year old men pretending to be 12
year olds!" 


Last year AOL installed a timer to log-off subscribers after 45 minutes if
they didn't respond to a warning message -- but a program called "Always
Online" allows users to bypass it.

Forbes Digital reports that the 16-year-old who wrote the program has
earned $35,000.  

But the program's biggest fans may be customer service reps who try to
talk users out of cancelling.  ( 
An AOL "retention agent" familiar with the program told AOL Watch, "One of
the techniques we use here at AOL to save the accounts is to tell
customers about it!"

        David Cassel
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