It’s time to begin a deathwatch on America Online. It will be a lingering death but it seems inevitable.

AOL is screwed. Its dialup subscriber base is shrinking fast; even poorly informed subscribers are realizing there are better ways to get online. Its software was originally designed to be simple and user-friendly, but it has long since turned into a cluttered, advertising-driven mess. AOL continues to design its software in non-standard ways; it installs odd “network adapters” and typically refuses to respond to other programs seeking to go online for virus definitions or security updates or the like. Its DSL service disconnects randomly for no reason. AOL’s “exclusive” content is meaningless. Anecdotes from people trying to cancel their service describe being required to call phone numbers that are concealed, speaking to reps who only get a commission if they talk you out of the cancellation, and outright lies and misdirection.

But I’m beginning the deathwatch because of the new AOL advertisements. Here’s an article by someone who was equally appalled at how awful they are. In the first, an obnoxious mom holding a baby comes in to an AOL board room to beg for improvements in AOL service. She hands her baby to a stranger without a second glance, climbs on the table, and is presumably gratified when the execs agree to her demands. She hands off her baby so she can ask for things that are readily available from every ISP. It’s really extraordinary to watch.

And the second commercial shows a huge group of people outside AOL headquarters demanding improvements in the service. Honest – AOL’s commercial shows an angry mob of dissatisfied customers storming company headquarters! The clear message is that if you’re unhappy with AOL, you’re going to join a queue of 23 million people.

If you’re an AOL user and you’re not having any problems, you have my blessings and my best wishes. But bail out the minute the thought crosses your mind. Life is too short to go down with that sinking ship.

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