AOL: The Next Mac Cloner?
May 17th, 2002

There have been all sorts of interesting developments going on between our favorite computer company and our least favorite online service. Apple and AOL seem to be getting cozy of late, with iChat using the AIM network, a recent ad for Mac OS X aimed at Unix users featuring a Netscape icon in the Dock, while not having an Internet Explorer icon at all, and now AOL's own move to use Netscape as the browser in its Mac OS X beta AOL software. I think that these events are not coincidental, and I think that Apple will be getting more involved with the entertainment mega-corporation as time goes on. Despite my personal distaste for AOL as an ISP, not to mention my loathing of AOL Time Warner's efforts to copy protect CDs and further erode my fair use rights, I think this could be a big thing for the Mac platform.

(For purposes of this column, references to AOL should be assumed to mean AOL Time Warner's online service, unless otherwise stated.)

AOL's flagship online service, AOL, is aimed at people looking for an easy and pain-free way to get online. Certainly there are many AOL users who also enjoy the type of community that the service offers, but new growth for AOL comes predominantly from people new to the Internet. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to note that Apple's own Mac platform is also well suited for people who are new to computing and want a painless and fun way to use their computers. Mac OS X offers a lot of power to power-users, but it also offers what I think is the best computing platform for new users.

Gosh, it seems like there is potential for a little match-up here, no?

A partnership between AOL and Apple could have enormous benefits for Apple. As AOL continues to look for increasing revenues in a maturing market, one of the things the company has done is to look for ways to sell more things to its members. If AOL were to directly market Macs to its users, something that would require a truly up to date AOL client, the company could leverage its ability to directly reach 34 million pairs of eyeballs. AOL could also exploit the Mac's ease of use in its direct sales pitch, and conceivably sell a lot of units.

That's chicken-feed, however, when compared to the potential behind AOL and Apple teaming together to develop a Mac powered AOL branded computer. The two companies have excelled at developing easy-to-use solutions, and offering this sort of solution to new and existing AOL customers could really open some doors for both companies.

Such a device would be a Mac, but one that was ostensibly geared towards surfing the Internet through AOL. An eMac or iMac would both work well to this end, though AOL might well want to develop its own cheaper model. In fact, one might almost consider AOL a licensee of the Mac OS for this, or a "cloner" to use the parlance of the mid-90s, in my little scenario. It would likely be set up so that AOL automatically launches at start up, or perhaps it could have a special key on the keyboard that directly launches AOL, connecting the user in the process. Underneath, however, this unit would be an AOL branded Mac, one that comes out of the box with iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, and iDVD. Throw in AppleWorks, which comes with the iMac anyway, and the user is set to do everything a typical AOL user might want to do with a Mac.

With AOL lending its own credibility to users with this machine, many a Windows user might well buy one. If AOL asked its Windows users how many were happy with their computer, how many yeses do you think it would get? If AOL pushed its AOL branded Mac as the easier way to use AOL, how many do you think they could sell?

From a support standpoint, imagine the savings AOL could realize if the company worked hard with Apple to make AOL work really well on this unit. Tech support at AOL is a BIG deal, with untold millions of dollars spent every quarter on helping people deal with settings, Windows conflicts, and other related issues. With a specially built unit like the one I am describing, the company could change some of that.

Apple would obviously directly benefit from adding many new members to its user-base. When Apple tried licensing before, it was computer companies that got into the ring. The result was, in some ways, a cannibalization of Apple's existing market. A licensee like AOL would be a whole other kind of partner; one that didn't compete with Apple, and one that could significantly broaden market share for the Mac OS.

Apple would get a new revenue stream as many of these AOL customers would likely be Windows users new to the platform, but Apple would gain in other ways too. Big money Web sites work hard to make sure their sites are compatible with AOL's needs. If AOL were to pursue this sort of deal with Apple, it would likely include Mac compatibility as one of its own internal requirements. This means we would find all those big money sites bending over backwards to make sure that their sites worked on our Macs (assuming we used the same browser as AOL was using in its software). Financial institutions, entertainment sites, Web services companies; they would all come calling on us as Mac users, and all because we were in line with AOL and its 34 million users, through no fault of our own.

Sounds nice.

This is the sort of deal where everyone wins. AOL and Apple both get a new revenue stream, AOL potentially cuts support costs, a bunch of hapless AOL users get upgraded from Windows to the Mac, other Mac users get the benefit of being aligned with the world's biggest online service, and the Mac platform grows.

I definitely think there is more to come from Apple and AOL, though the ideas presented here are only a hunch. Whatever shape it comes in, I think that there are many potential benefits for the Mac platform from closer ties between Apple and AOL, even though I find it surprising for me to say that.

Join in the discussion of Apple choosing Netscape over Internet Explorer in our forums.