AOL, known as America On-Line in the US, has more than 4.5 million users and has grown at a furious pace over the past 18 months. It started late, and at one point looked unlikely to survive. But it has come on in leaps and bounds. In July 1994, AOL was, according to the analysts Odyssey, in third place in the United States with a 4 per cent market share. Prodigy led with 10 per cent and CompuServe held second place with 5 per cent. Twelve months later, Prodigy had lost 3 percentage points, CompuServe held on to second place with 6 per cent but AOL stormed into the prime slot with a 13 per cent share.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is cheaper than the other services and uses that fact to hack away at market share. The second is that the service is beautiful to look at, and easy to use.
Like CompuServe, AOL has spent a lot of money researching and developing the front end (the part you see when you log on). AOL now has the edge, and knows it.
The product was launched in the US with the consumer in mind. With lots of pictures and sounds to keep the paying punter happy, the service forced both CompuServe and Prodigy to redesign their front ends.
For UK users, AOL has gone to the expense of having Joanna Lumley's voice welcome the user and prompt them with information about mail and downloading. A support centre in Ireland with 60 staff will deal with technical queries.
At the launch of the service, Jonathan Bulkely, the company's managing director in the UK, said: "Our goal is to be the dominant online service worldwide."
To achieve that goal the company has launched a European assault that takes place on three fronts: England, France and Germany. Its partner is the German publishing giant Bertelsmann. All three regions will have their own service with the appropriate language. With the US service available, too, anyone who uses AOL will be able to connect to any of the four regions, without paying extra.
AOL's arrival has certainly nudged the competition. CompuServe and UK On-Line were operating nodes at speeds of 9.600bps and lower, which makes download time painfully slow. AOL has guaranteed that all its nodes operate at a minimum speed of 28,800bps. CompuServe has responded by saying it will upgraded all access points to 28,800bps, but for technical reasons getting on to the service when traffic gets heavy is likely to be easier with AOL.
If there is a criticism, it is that AOL does not yet have the depth of UK content as CompuServe. "AOL is and will be in an eternal state of catch-up for a very long time," a CompuServe spokeswoman says.
Internet access is just a click away, although AOL's current Web browser is not state of the art. It is believed to be talking to Netscape with a view to licensing its latest browser, Navigator 2.0.
AOL: 0800 279 1234. Subscription pounds 5.95 a month, including five hours' use. Then pounds 1.85 an hour. 0800 279 1234 for a free month's trial.