AOL was a big early Internet service provider, and of course by the late nineties, the most popular Internet protocol was the web; most users spent most of their Internet time in a web browser.

But if you go back a few years before that, say before 1993, before the web existed, that was still the era of Windows, when people expected a graphic user interface.

What client program, what user interface, did AOL provide for its subscribers at that time?

  • 4
    "say before 1993, before the web existed"... The Web existed in December 1990. Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 7:07
  • @EricTowers Okay, before the web was in general use, then.
    – rwallace
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 7:57

3 Answers 3


AOL provided (and still provide) their own client, which — at least back then — was called “America Online”. This was available on a variety of platforms, including DOS:

Screenshot of America Online for DOS

(based on GeoWorks) and Windows 3:

Screenshot of America Online for Windows 3

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    Most of the major online services would offer their own GUI clients sometime between the late 80s and mid-90s, before the Internet largely swept them away.
    – RETRAC
    Commented Feb 23, 2021 at 18:02
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    Do we know anything about the format AOL used to deliver its content? Some proprietary precursor to HTML?
    – evan
    Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 22:38
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    Yes, proprietary. And they used a trick. Since most people were using dial-up, they cached a lot of the graphics on your hard drive. These remained between sessions. This made it faster than dial-up would normally allow.
    – Mattman944
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:40
  • 1
    @Mattman944 True 'nuff, though that "trick" was exactly the same one every online-play video game also used, and in fact still uses to this day. (Those massive installs are, effectively, all just pre-cached content stored locally so that it doesn't have to be downloaded in realtime from the game servers.) AOL's innovation was to apply that same idea to a non-game software interface, something traditional online-only BBS or chat services couldn't do since they had no local client component to their interface.
    – FeRD
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 21:47
  • Isn't the "trick" just "having a locally-installed program"?
    – tsbertalan
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 21:55

In addition to Stephen Kitt's answer, you can go back even further from Windows 3.1 to the Apple II version of America Online, circa 1989. Certainly not as popular or long-lived as the MS-DOS and Windows versions, but it did exist for the 8-bit platform!

Apple II AOL home screen

While some things were done in graphics mode, most of the text and "productivity stuff" was done through a standard text mode.

text GUI

I was a beta tester for AppleLink at the time they rebranded to AOL, so I still have two 5.25" floppies in a mailer with a welcome letter somewhere.

Unfortunately due to the nature of the service, you probably won't find any screen shots beyond these pictures and a few others simply because you need a working server to communicate with to get into the more interesting stuff. But from memory, games were in graphics mode as was some other "fun stuff", but the majority of your experience was in the text mode.

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    I'm wondering whether anyone has already tried to create their own server which emulates the AOL service, e.g. by reverse-engineering the clients. It's a lot of work but people have done that for several multiplayer games.
    – grawity
    Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 10:11
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    @user1686 I'd sincerely doubt it. Games have been reverse-engineered because people are fans of them. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone even at the time who was a fan of AOL's service. Some games and features such as chatrooms were popular, sure, but this was independent of AOL as as a service.
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 15:36
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    @user1686 - AOL service? Does it include being put on hold for 2-3 hours when looking to disconnect?
    – blankip
    Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 20:45
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    @blankip : When you wish to disconnect, start up a raw terminal and type "+++", wait one second, then "ATH", obviously. I'm simultaneously surprised and sad that I remembered this immediately from your use of "disconnect". Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 7:13
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    America Online on Apple IIe in 1989? Weren't they still called Quantum in '89?
    – Phaelax z
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 18:56

AOL was based on Quantum Link, which ran on Commodore 64s and which in turn was based on PlayNet software.

By 90s, it was expanded to include The Remote Automated Information Manager or RAINMAN, which was basically an in-house developed state-machine/scripting language used to create every window you could see after you've logged in, from the Welcome screen to interactive pages like the chatroom pages. For images, AOL purchased and utilized the .ART image format.

They've abandoned it and switched to mostly HTML by 2004.

  • That PlayNet, Inc. was based in Troy, NY becomes either significant or predictable, once you know that RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic) sits on a hill overlooking Troy. Which is why, not only did PlayNet get its start there, but so did the NYSERNet.
    – FeRD
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 8:12

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