Getting AOL for Free: Long-Overdue Necessity or Last-ditch Desperation Move?

When the newest freebie on the Internet is a private network you thought you left for dead – along with others just like yourself – you probably have no idea what to think. Perhaps you want to return to see how it fares as a free service. Or perhaps you are cautious after so many horror stories.

Either way, that just about describes Time Warner’s AOL service right now – a formerly private network, now open to anyone regardless of ability to pay so long as you have an Internet connection – a once-mighty ISP that’s still trying its hardest to finally get its head out of the dial-up era, five years after that disastrous new-media/old-media deal – and three or four since dial-up access on the network peaked and took a dive.

And yes, it’s a sorry truth we must now face – even though it may have taken half a decade or more, the AOL software that most people grew up with is finally free to all broadband users. But is it worth the hassle to return for more of what you miss? Using the AOL 9.0 software and a new free-access account for it created under the rules of the new policy, I set off to find out. But alas, the results turned out to be a mixed bag of sorts, and some things didn’t work as expected while others performed as usual. But anyway, here goes nothing…

First there’s the account creation. Assuming you still know where the AOL sign up page is (it’s on the web version of AOL launched not too long ago back when the AOL network hosted the Live 8 webcasts at and click the sign up now link. After that, choose the Free AOL option, click the continue link and follow the rest of the instructions. And be sure to install the AOL software if you go see for yourself (don’t worry, you’ll no longer be charged for this). Finally, when setting up the AOL software identify yourself as a current member and provide the screen name and password you created during setting up your account. Soon you’ll be up and running with what for many people is a more familiar web environment.

And yet, after a quick analysis of the service from the new perspective, I’m still a wee bit unsure about the whole thing. I mean, it’s nice to finally be able to experience all this stuff that you get for free from, say, MSN or Yahoo – but it feels like it’s kind of been forced on cyberspace. And some things don’t currently work as expected in free account mode – the KOL kids pages brought up a feature currently unavailable dead-end for me, while the AOL Red teen front page loaded flawlessly on my test account. (And yes, I was able to play the premium version of the online game Slingo, long one of AOL’s great time-wasters since it’s 90’s debut.) But the question nonetheless remains – is it a long-overdue necessity, or a last-ditch desperation move by Time Warner execs?

Actually, it’s a little bit of both. AOL is trying everything it can to keep its web business afloat – from providing old television favorites online (In2TV) and a spot-on new-media spin on Hollywood gossip (TMZ), to providing free security services and now even opening its flagship private network to all who wish to enter. In short, the walled garden is now thrown wide open and AOL is giving away the keys as if there was no such wall to begin with!

Unfortunately, though, my experience shows that while the expectations are high there are too many unknowns with the whole deal. In the end, what matters is whether or not it’s enough of a solution for the average netizen that will prove to be the ultimate test.

And that will be a hard sell in itself.

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