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Scan of an old Money Cover from December 1990 about the Net Century

Money is turning 50! To celebrate, we’ve combed through decades of our print magazines to uncover hidden gems, fascinating stories and vintage personal finance tips that have (surprisingly) withstood the test of time. Throughout 2022, we’ll be sharing our favorite finds in Money Classic, a special limited-edition newsletter that goes out twice a month.

This excerpt, featured in the 18th issue of Money Classic, comes from a story in our November 1985 edition.

It used to be that if you were signing up for online service for the first time, America Online was the obvious choice. The tangled Web was too unwieldy for most Net novices, and many America Onliners found much of what they wanted within AOL's proprietary content. At $19.95 a month for unlimited access, how could you go wrong?

Well, America Online (now $21.95) is still booming, fast approaching the 19-million-member mark, while its nearest rival — the newly merged Earthlink and Mindspring — hovers at only 3 million users. The latest version of AOL, 5.0, was expected to be introduced in October, the first major upgrade in a year. But the online landscape has changed a lot. Pricing is in a state of flux. A host of national and local Internet service providers (ISPs) are mimicking AOL's features and going after its core group of novice users. And Web portals are making Net navigation far easier than it used to be.

In late September, Mindspring released its latest version, 4.0, with an easier-to-use interface and access to America Online's once proprietary and much loved Instant Messenger feature. Earthlink is countering with its own version of 5.0 any day now, again targeted to AOL's subscriber base.

If you're currently an AOL subscriber or thinking about signing up soon, is it worth the price? Here are some of the main ISP battlefields and how AOL measures up to the competition.

Content. AOL's content is what made the service so successful in the first place. From the start, AOL has had easy-access channels that provide most of the information people are looking for online — things like sports scores, stock quotes, entertainment news and travel bookings.

Much of the information on AOL isn't really unique, but it is packaged well on one colorful welcome page. And jumping from section to section is often faster than on Internet browsers, where graphics-heavy Web pages can require more download time.

But with the growing popularity of portal websites such as My Yahoo! and My Excite — which improve upon AOL's popular welcome page — AOL has lost that edge. At My Yahoo!, for instance, you can customize your start page to include stock quotes, sports scores, news headlines, links to your favorite websites and even movie times at your local theaters.

Features. AOL once fought to hold on to one of its key features, Instant Messenger, which lets you communicate with other AOL users in real time. But recently AOL decided to license the technology to ISPs like Earthlink and Mindspring.

Yet some new AOL 5.0 features stand out, including a personal calendar, the option to have as many as seven screen names and "You've Got Pictures," a program that lets you display your developed photographs on AOL and e-mail them.

Price. AOL popularized the all-you-can-eat $19.95-a-month fee in 1996. Last year, the monthly charge went up to $21.95. This September, Microsoft announced a price hike for MSN Internet Access to $21.95 as well (for new members). Two dollars might not seem like a big deal, but discounts from competitors have widened the gap.

If you're a Spring long-distance customer, for example, you pay just $17.95 a month for Earthlink. Costco members can get MSN service for only $11.99 a month. Joe Laszlo, an analyst for Jupiter Communications sees even more such deals popping up in the near future. A few companies, including AltaVista, provide free Net access if you're willing to let the ISP share your Web habits with marketers. For more on ISP prices, see the table below.

The bottom line. For people going online for the first time, AOL's easy-to-use package of essential information, Internet links and e-mail is still a great option. But for those longtime users who have built up a lengthy list of bookmarked websites and generally bypass AOL content, you won't be missing out on as much now (except those annoying pop-up ads) if you sign up with another ISP to save money. If you switch and suffer separation anxiety, AOL offers a plan called Bring-Your-Own-Access, which lets you get to AOL through another ISP for the reduced price of $9.95 per month.

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