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How AOL Can Win, Part 2

2005-05-06 08:15:22

In my previous diatribe on this topic, I suggested that:

  1. Spam is a problem.
  2. The AOL Buddy system is widely used.

Now, I know these are radical insights, even for one who rules as much as I do, but just take them for granted for the purposes of this article. Got it? Awesome.

The big idea is to take insight number 2, and solve insight number 1. The short version of this idea is:

Turn the AIM network into a global pay-for-use email system that almost every internet user will join.

All kidding aside, I think this is probably a shocking, if not laughable idea on the surface. If you just spewed your coffee on you new LCD screen, sorry. I'll wait while you get a paper towel. Alright, let me explain how this actually could work.

As with any network, the hard part is getting it started. Nobody want to join a private email system if nobody else is on it. This is the first good feature of AIM: pretty much everybody is already on it, at least in that they have two critical pieces. First, they have a screen name with a password. Second, and more important, they have a buddy list of people they want to communicate with.

What is missing is a way to leverage that those two incredibly valuable assets into the email. If my buddy is not on line, I can't reliable send her a message through AIM. Furthermore, AIM messages are, by their very nature and intent, ephemeral. An email message is (usually) a semi-prepared "letter," while an IM is a phrase that either begins or is part of a conversation.

AOL could take the approach of building email-like semantics into the AIM client. So you cold select a buddy and say "compose email" and invoke a window that would look very much like an email, write it, and send it. This, however, would be a monumentally stupid approach. First, it would require writing and distributing more client software, including both the ability to send and read all the AIM email messages flying around. Second, it would leave users with two separate email clients: Outlook or whatever and the AIM email client. Finally, it leaves out the oddball users on Macintosh and Linux, and would require somebody writing software for those platforms.

My suggestion is to avoid writing any client software at all. AOL should create two services.

First, an SMTP service that requires user authentication to send messages: this service would take the AIM user name and password to accept messages for delivery. Email messages from any mail client (such as outlook) would be addressed to soand[email protected]. This SMTP gateway would take the authenticated AIM screen name of the sender, check to make sure that the sender was on the the recipients buddy list, and only then deposit the email message in the inbox of the recipient. If you try to send a message to any other address, or are not on the buddy list, then you get a standard bounce message with the appropriate explanation.

This leads us to the second service, a POP/IMAP service. Just as with the SMTP gateway, it is authenticated by the AIM screen name/password. Any email client could be used. The cool thing is that for the inbox in question, the user could be assured that all messages were from pre-authorized buddies. There is no way for anybody else to send email to their AIM inbox. This is the entire value proposition to the end user. As long as this is true, the AIM inbox is a special email hotline that I can always trust has relevant messages for me. I would be willing to pay for that, and I think a lot of other people would also.

Now that we have the technical implementation described, the really tricky part is building the network of users. AIM (and other IM or social networks) generally have spread because they are free. One could take various "free for a while" or "limited use" free versions in the AIM email network. But I think those would not work so well. In the "free for a while" model, you get the user revolt and bad feeling when you start charging for something that was free. In the "limited use" model, you basically artificially fail to deliver messages based on some usage level. An important component of any email service is reliability, and the message that "hey we are reliable, but only if you pay" is not very consumer-friendly. More importantly, this service is so freaking valuable it should not have that value eroded by being free.

I suggest that the sending side of the system be free. Any AIM user should be able to send an email message to an AIM user who is email-enabled. And that's the hook: the person who is experiencing the pain, is the person who is receiving all the spam, and wants their buddies to be able to communicate with them on a separate channel. This it the pay service: an AIM inbox that only your pals can leave messages in, that you can read through any email client (or, on an AIM webmail site, of course) is only $19.95 per year. Or maybe $9.95. And, yes, per year. Remember, we're trying to build a network here, and low barrier to entry is the key. Think about it: 100 million AIM users, that's some pretty good cash. And once users have a payment method set up with their AIM account, think what else you could do: iTunes or other product purchases from the AIM client ads, etc.

Remember when I said modifying the AIM client would be monumentally stupid? That was mostly for effect. To get the network started and growing, of course the AIM clients would need to be modified. First, any AIM user who was inbox-enabled would have a special indicator (similar to video/audio chat indicators today.) That way, their buddies would know they could send them an email. Also, if you send an IM to a buddy who is inbox-enabled, even if they are offline, you should always have the option of sending the message (or whole chat transcript) to their inbox, so they can read it later on their email client. And, whenever an AIM user sends such a message, they would be sold on how to both set up their email client to send SMTP email to their buddy, and how to get their own inbox.

Another upsell method would be used for those people who set up SMTP outboxes on their email clients (which is free). When they set up the account, they would enter full settings for the SMTP and POP server, username and password. But if they aren't paying members of the network, they can't receive mail. That POP mailbox would have one canned message that would keep appearing, once a week or once a month, which basically is the marketing campaign for why they should cough up the $10/year to get the inbox. Sort of a "if you lived here you'd be home now" thing, for those of you who drive through Leverett Circle on Storrow Drive in Boston.

The other obvious upsells are on the bounce messages you get if you try to send a message to a non-inbox-enabled user. These would be standand bounced email messages, but would include a link to instructions for getting your buddy to sign up. "Sign up for AIM inbox dude, I want to send you messages!"

Finally, once the network is rolling, there are corporate sales you could make, creating meta-buddy groups that would allow delivery between departments or even companies that establish email trust relationships.

There are a few more details in this thing, but there it is, on a silver platter. Hey, AOL, feel free to send me a check for $47 million once you achieve creation of the largest private communications system in human history.