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AOL at Twenty Starts Second Act

The online service helped trigger the original Internet boom, and a new approach aims to do it all over again -- "There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, but even he would have to marvel at the curtain raiser on America Online's second act. Founded in 1985, AOL was a pioneer of the Internet, vaulting to spectacular heights only to plummet to an equally astounding low

Twenty years later, the firm has reinvented itself as an Internet portal and is reaping the rewards of its brand name, a dual revenue stream and two decades of experience. The new package is compelling enough to have attracted serious interest from third-party investors. During the past few months, AOL has been sequestered in backroom meetings trying to hammer out a deal with one of several suitors, among which the front-runners seem to be Google and Microsoft.

Interestingly, the one-time black sheep of the Time Warner family might just be the little engine that could reverse the sagging fortunes of its corporate parent.

As a dial-up Internet service provider, AOL by the late 1990s grew to include more than 25 million paying subscribers, making the company the largest in the business. Most were mainstream consumers who enjoyed the exclusivity of AOL's members-only environment during the Internet's early days. AOL was not like Web-surfing; it was a destination that filtered, packaged and edited its content and one where users built a strong sense of community through chat rooms and newsgroups.

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