What the hell? Another click-bait headline for an article filled with Apple-bashing garbage, designed to bring the masses in with their teeming, steaming fingers commenting away? Not really. It’s actually a complimentary comparison (though for the very reasons it is, many of the likely readers of this article will be offended).

So I sit down to the computer and note that AOL (a former employer of mine) turned 25 years old recently. Kara Swisher of WSJ marked the occasion appropriately and in the article, she said something that is easy to forget:

…AOL–which really does deserve much praise for its pioneering and innovative efforts to introduce the Internet to mainstream consumer without the snobbery so typical of Silicon Valley techies toward regular people

Think about this one for a minute, because it’s true. There are millions of geeks who would be happier if the “normal people” were never let onto their internet, but there are hundreds of millions of people who are happier to be on now, thanks to AOL (or America Online, and it’s oddly named international variants). Yes, AOL wasn’t alone, there were a, ahem, host, of other providers too, but with AOL being the number one provider for many years, they deserve the credit (or derision, depending on your point-of-view).

So, what do we have? A pioneering company making products that served its own worldview (cynically, the “walled garden”), successfully, it might be added, bringing in people from a wide variety of backgrounds, allowing them to use technology in ways few had seen, expected, or even predicted in wild Carson-esqe fits of premonition. You had the Earth being blanketed by floppies and CDs. You had consumer companies testing the waters for new methods of product development, product delivery, marketing, sales, support, and all sorts of other angles, trying to figure out how to use the new medium to benefit customers and benefit corporate bottom lines.

Ignoring the AOL corporate missteps (which let’s face it, are really important, but covered quite well elsewhere and are not germane to the upcoming point), does this sound like anyCorp else you might know?

Let’s focus on a few similarities that might spark ideas.

  1. The company blazes a trail, in most cases regardless of what potential (or real) partners might want
  2. The company has a grand vision for (most of) the markets it enters and hews to that vision religiously
  3. The company is led by a visionary (whether you agree with the vision or not)
  4. The company dominates in certain markets
  5. The company “officially” disdains the seedier portions of its market, ceding it to others
  6. The company generates enormous amounts of press for its decisions, roadmap, products, and statements (again, whether you agree with the contents of those elements or not)
  7. The company is a lightning rod for passionate discussions on the net about the net
  8. Geeks are explosively fragmented about the company, its goals, and its products
  9. The company is the embodiment of all that is evil. Just ask its detractors.
  10. The company is responsible for invoking Godwin’s Law more often than Microsoft, Red Hat, IBM, AT&T, and Comcast put together. (Ok, maybe not. Maybe it just seems that way.)

Guess who it is yet?

Of course, it’s Apple, and the words to this point have just been to lay out the argument presented in the title; Apple is the AOL of today, and if you’re inclined to critical thinking and a modicum of reading comprehension, you probably already know why I say this. If I’ve lost you along the way, hold on, because here is the longer version.

The Geeks Shall Not Inherit the Earth

I’ve written elsewhere about the Apple/Adobe feud and the rapidly increasing adoption of HTML5 (and other) technologies proves Apple right, self-fulfilling or not. I’ve written elsewhere about Apple’s use of microSIM in the iPad and how this was likely to be the harbinger of future products. Based on the “iPhone 4” leaks, it definitely seems to be appropriate. What do these, and so many other Apple decisions have to do with each other? They are both business decisions and consumer decisions. They are not strictly technical decisions. Sure, there’s a technical aspect to it, but any hue and cry raised by technologists goes mostly unnoticed, and rightfully so. If geeks ran the earth, we wouldn’t have alternatives to Windows (or maybe not even had Windows, as pure command-line was good enough, right?) From the number of slots in a computer tower to the use of floppy disks to USB to many other “technologies”, Apple is not afraid to move the customer base forward to the goals, as defined by Apple, not as defined by you, me, or some other legacy geek who might not understand the broader market implications. Apple is brave, just like AOL was brave, tackling problems that are not even necessarily identified as issues at that point in time. The confidence of being right is many times enough to actually be right.

The Press Doesn’t Get It

While most of the bad press for AOL has died down in the last few years as the company attempts to recover from a variety of issues, it’s not difficult to find examples of how AOL had to bow to its critics and change, had to become just like everyone else, how the company is doomed, doomed I tell you because it forged its own way. This is where many critics are likely to stand up and say, “See? We told you!” considering AOL’s current difficulties, and are just as likely to add the argument to Apple: “If the App Store doesn’t open up, if the approval process doesn’t change, if Apple and Google don’t drag each other into the broom closet for hot make-up action during the next Cupertino fire drill, if Apple doesn’t open up third-party advertising networks, if Apple doesn’t do this and if Apple doesn’t do that…”. Well, the critics might be right, but Apple is succeeding just fine right now without doing all those things. Just like AOL succeeded in its time. Apple controls its own destiny, just like AOL. Will Apple misstep? No one can answer that one, not even its most vehement critics. Only time will determine that one. Is the approach inherently bad? It does offend geek sensibilities, because control like this must be for evil purposes, right? Every man, woman, and child on the planet has a right to pay large numbers of dollars (or pesos, or lira, or marks, or rubles, or rupees, etc) for the right to an unfettered, virus-compromised, porn-overrun, “speed up your cellphone by clicking here” malware-infested, hard-to-understand, infinitely-capable-but-infinitely-complex computer, rather than the device they thought they were buying. Gee, I’d hate to infringe on that right.

One thing about the critics (well, and the proponents like me, alike): We come from a class of people who, by definition, are less likely to get the point the first time. We are trained to deconstruct products, services, companies, and even people into categories that we understand, into pockets of information that match our experience and predilection. You know what? We tend to be technologists, not true consumer behavior analysts. Some of us might get lucky and attempt to raise ourselves above the technogeek muck, but it takes work, attention, and a desire to truly understand the dynamics at work to accomplish this. In this world of instant news, instant analysis, I suspect that few take the time to “stop and think” about these sorts of things when there’s another deadline around the corner and success can be had in many definitions without doing the extra work.

If It’s Easy, It Has to be Bad

Remember one of the dominant AOL slogans? “So easy to use, no wonder it’s number one!” There’s a reason that the iPhone, iPod, and now iPad are selling so well, and it’s not the installed Mac OS base. And as the Flash proponents might like to say, since Flash is “95% of the video on the web” (um, ok…), these devices are selling this well on everything else. No wonder Adobe is fighting so hard, no wonder Flash developers are fighting so hard, when the market (by sales of iDevices) is showing that in large chunks, their work is unnecessary.

Really, this is a bias introduced by either a lack of understanding or a fear of the results. Feudal lords kept the serfs uneducated for fear of the revolt from a literate populace. Personal computers were held back from many corporate desktops in favor of mainframe solutions simply because the men in white coats could not necessarily control what happened on the desktop. The IT world oscillates between client-server and thin-clients on about a ten-year cycle and while the vocabulary changes, the reasoning (sometimes valid, sometimes not) effectively stays the same. Functionality vs. security. Training vs. productivity. Access vs. expenditure. So, in the context of the repeating technology arguments, AOL was the target of so much hate from people who “knew what they were doing and didn’t need training wheels” (regardless of whether these experts were using the AOL service or not). Apple has been and is the target of similar hateful invective; the original Mac OS/Macintosh/System was a toy (and occasionally that chestnut is still raised despite the Unix underpinnings of Mac OS X), the iPhone should be open and anything should be able to be installed on it, Apple makes various policy and security changes just to protect its business model (Really? Making a device “less functional” as the critics would claim causes Apple to sell more hardware?), and on and on. I’m certain there will be geek historians that write the tale years from now and will note the similarity of how the technorati rose up against consumer-popular companies like waves only to crash back into the sea, the “walled gardens” unfazed by noise.

Having the Balls to be Right. Or Wrong. But Not Mediocre.

Each of these things is more a symptom (or an attribute) of how Apple is today’s AOL, but it’s still dancing around the core, and that is that each company’s vision (and visionary) has a plan. A goal. The ability to execute. The market presence to bootstrap. The resources to succeed. In short, these companies believe in what they are creating and are willing to “bet the farm” on creating something great as the result. Or failing spectacularly, if that’s what happens, but either way, staying true to the vision means that there will be success or failure. There won’t be years of muddling around in obscurity trying to please everyone and every task while succeeding only well enough to prevent a change in direction. Steve Case was able to execute his vision, with spectacular results (at the time). Steve Jobs has been executing his vision, with spectacular results.

AOL brought connectivity (technical, telephone, human) to a world where BBSes and timeshares were the purview of übergeeks, where not just knowledge but understanding of baud, POTS, and command lines were previously necessary.

Apple is bringing a stellar vision of connected and useful devices to a world that is only used to personal computers, complete with the expectations of incompatibility, inconsistency, and insecurity reign.

So yes, Apple is today’s AOL.