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?