The rise in popularity of home PCs with modems in the U.S. coincided with the rise of America Online. Of course, many of us in America were online for years before this - using Compuserve, GEnie, and BBS's mostly. But for mainstream America first acquiring home computers in the early-1990s, AOL was basically the "killer app". Subsequently, this national "addiction" to AOL led to rapid growth in Internet as most Americans got their introduction to the Internet via AOL.

Given the uniquely American roots of AOL, my assumption is that it was not so dominant or important in Europe and Asia as it was here in the U.S. So what online services, if any, led the way in other regions' inhabitants deciding to get online in the first place, and eventually get on the Internet?

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    At some point the company changed its name from "America Online" to "AOL". This latter name was certainly used in the UK where AOL still has business today - so I conclude that for the UK, one equivalent of AOL was AOL – dave Nov 4 at 15:56
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    In Japan 15-20 years ago, most people were online through their cell phones when North Americans used desktop computers. I believe much of Africa also uses cell phones for most Internet access. – traal Nov 4 at 16:11
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    @traal well, 15 years ago is already when AOL started its way down. I think we can narrow down the era in question for somewhere between 1980 and 1995. – Raffzahn Nov 4 at 16:33
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    @traal AOL's boom time was well before the cellphone. – tofro Nov 4 at 17:42
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    My early 1990ies experience in Germany was everyone slightly interested in networking was doing their internet stuff at university. You could get an account one way or another. E.g. as a high school student, you could easily get a library ID at my local university, and having that one you could get a computer access ID. And then, it escalated quickly. – Janka Nov 4 at 22:35

In the UK, CompuServe, CIX, and Demon Internet were the most influential early ISPs, but there were plenty more, such as Dircon, Pipex and Freeserve.

Freeserve built by far the largest customer base, and may be the nearest UK equivalent to AOL in the US. However, it was rather different in that it gave you access to the Internet in general, with no "walled garden."

AOL had customers, but was not terribly successful. The determination its UK marketing team had to make sure everyone got at least two AOL CDs every month was counter-productive, in that if you keep trying to force something that's free on the British, they'll assume it's worthless.

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    Demon internet was my first decent ISP, but I would argue that it was Freeserve that rally got much of the UK online. AOL was less successful because their 'walled garden' approach was outdated by the time it launched here, whereas the Freeserve CDs were much more useful, incorporating a full TCP/IP attack for Windows 3.1 and the Netscape Navigator suite. – Mark Williams Nov 4 at 20:10
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    Another top tip for marketing to Brits: don't put "America" in your product name. (though I write this as a Brit that emigrated to America, so...) – Tommy Nov 4 at 22:55
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    @Tommy I had been receiving AOL CDs in the UK since early 1996 onwards and their marketing material always referred to them just as "AOL" - I had never seen them use their full name. – Dai Nov 5 at 5:43
  • Think I used CompuServe and Freeserve at various points. The phrase "Pipex Dial" also comes to mind. Happy memories! – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 5 at 11:16
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    At least AOL stopped tables from getting circles from beer glasses and coffee cups. – Jon Hanna Nov 5 at 16:14

Given the uniquely American roots of AOL,

Why should AOL be anymore unique American than a C64 - selling quite well in all of Europe and some other parts.

my assumption is that it was not so dominant or important in Europe and Asia as it was here in the U.S.

It was. As by the amount of xxx-hours-free-internet-CDs attached to magazines and dropped in each mailbox.

So what online services, if any, led the way in other regions' inhabitants deciding to get online in the first place, and eventually get on the Internet?

Online systems for average users started in Europe around 1980. For example, GeoNet in Germany - which in some sense became the prototype for character-based online systems. In fact, the year 1980 was in Germany a serious backlash for BBS systems, as local calls where no longer free.

1984/85 is when the BBS scene became real vibrant, with several networks popping up. Like Mausnet or Zerberus - Fido as well. Especially Zerberus or Z-Net as it was called later on, played an important role, as it was the first system that allowed the use of a common infrastructure for vastly different content systems. Unlike Fido, where such systems had to setup their own network structure. Similar developments happened in other European countries.

In parallel (almost) each European countries telecom offered some online system based around the idea of using a TV set as terminal. Success varied greatly: where the UK PRESTEL barely attracted 100k users, did the German Bildschirmtext peak out at 1 Million users - about the time the service got merged into a new one with internet integration. The French Minitel eventually did beat them all with 15 million users - that's 25% of the total population, including babies and grannies. It even existed in parallel for several years after general availability of internet access.

Similar systems where available all over Europe:

  • Bildschirmtext in Germany and Austria
  • Ibertex in Spain
  • Minitel in France and Belgium
  • Teledata in Denmark,
  • Teleguide in Sweden
  • TeleSampo in Finland
  • Viditel in the Netherlands
  • Videotel in Italy
  • Videotex in Switzerland

And so on. Most systems followed either the French or German standard. For example the Austrian, Danish, Spanish and Swiss systems where German BTX.

Unlike often imagined, looking back they weren't confined to set-top boxes and TVs but also included (home-)computers early on. The BTX module by Commodore for the C64 maybe being the most prominent example - except it wasn't the only one. There were almost a dozen different interface solutions for the C64 alone. And many more for other machines, including Amiga, Atari ST or as well the PC. While in France databases, with the phone book as free example could be considered the door opener, Germany's killer application for BTX was online banking (*1). The eventual reason why the system was kept alive for almost 10 years after no longer accepting new customers - it was essential for many banks and their customers :)

These systems where the big players during the 1980s into 1990s. About the time when national telecoms started to offer internet access in the early 90s, AOL also entered the new liberalized markets and became a considerable player - alas not an overwhelming success as in the US. For one, the still well-performing Btx/Minitel systems were only slowly declining, while the internet, thanks to the WWW, became the choice for progressive users. The time of walled gardens was gone.

And the rest is history.


*1 - Keep in mind, we are talking early 1980s. That's pretty early. When was the first time you used online banking on your account?

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    AOL was most known for plastering the world with their free CDs (that nobody wanted...) – tofro Nov 4 at 17:40
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    Don't be too hard on the OP's world view. In the mid 1990s we had a visit from a bright 20-something American, with a bachelor's degree, who had just joined an American company and was on his first business trip to the UK. He was absolutely astounded to discover that "uniquely American" products like McDonalds and Coca-Cola were available everywhere in a foreign country! – alephzero Nov 4 at 18:31
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    Why would people assume it was a primarily American company? Because the name of the company was America Online. Its entire marketing is the idea that it was the service that Americans turned to go online. If I saw a company titled "France online," I would assume it was primarily in France, too. It's not at all like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, where their entire marketing is about how they are beloved worldwide. As for C64: Commodores exist in the UK, Canada, Germany, Finland, and 16 other countries, if we include from other languages. – trlkly Nov 4 at 23:25
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    @BrianH well, from the POV of my British notion of "history", nothing in America has any roots - it hasn't existed for long enough yet. But YMMV of course. (And note, we probably have different senses of humo(u)r also...) – alephzero Nov 4 at 23:48
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    @BrianH - the situation of Minitel in France was very interesting, and really was an early forerunner of the modern Internet in many respects. There were a very wide variety of services, and the popularity of the system was such that if you travelled in France in the early-mid 90s you will have no doubt seen advertisements plastered absolutely everywhere for premium rate adult chat services running on the platform. None of the other videotext services were anything like as successful, and I suspect that stricter regulation of content may have been something to do with it. – Jules Nov 5 at 0:03

Can only speak for myself: I never wanted the limited, cut-down internet access provided by AOL or my national telco.

IBM offered the first "real", non-proprietary internet access as a package with OS/2 Warp that got me into the internet. You could use the IAK (Internet Access Kit) that was the killer app of Warp and buy a monthly service through IBM network services (The "IBM Global Network"). If you were lucky to have a PoP near you, it was actually one of the cheaper options to get full unlimited internet access.

Before that, I was using Fidonet internet gateways for mail.

In Australia we had AOL and their CD (and floppies) was everywhere, in your snail mail, shop counters, on covers of magazines, in newspapers, etc.

Prior to Win 95 being released Microsoft and Telstra owned the Bigpond network (ISP) and Microsoft and Channel 9 owned Ninemsn (content).

Telstra also had their own useless network in 1989 called the Discovery Network. I used it for one month. It was very BBS like. The entire network was about 100 pages in total.

Both Bigpond and AOL were private networks and tried to compete with the internet. Eventually they allowed portals from their networks onto the public internet.

Australia previous prime minister owned OZEmail, an early ISP. He made hundreds of millions selling it.

Also BHP-Billiton (Australia's largest company) maintained a mirror of all the worlds internet files at the Port Kembla Steel Works so Australians could quickly download. This was early to mid 90s.

  • I remember that despite the free CDs, AOL was very expensive (...yes, even more so than BigPond! More recently, about 10 years ago, I worked for a Telstra subsidiary and even with a staff discount of like 20% BigPond was STILL more expensive than EVERY OTHER ISP!) – Esco Nov 7 at 4:00

In Italy one of the very first and most known ISP was Video On Line (VOL). I remember that in 1994 it opened an "Internet Point" in Cagliari, Sardinia where people could freely surf and discover the Web for 30 minutes. At the same time it offered dial-up subscription for those lucky folks with a modem at home.

Galactica and Mc-Link are even older ISPs, but they were born as BBS, before the birth and early stages of the World Wide Web.

In Brazil one of most famous ISPs was Universo On-Line. They, just like AOL, would send CDs with newspapers, magazines and when you bought a new computer.

We had a bunch of smaller ISPs but they eventually faded away when people stopped using dial-up.

AOL never caught on here.

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