Sunday, September 25, 2005

And Then Along Came AOL

With all my successful work on QuantumLink, and my involvement with PC-Link, I was asked to provide my newswire service on America Online when it first started. I started in the later part of 1990 helping to test the new service and get my area off the ground. Everything went live around January 1991 and the fun began! My AOL New Product News area covered just the PC industry while the QuantumLink area still covered the Commodore market. PC-Link continued for awhile with a mirror of what I started posting on AOL, so at least I didn't have to post everything multiple times.

In the beginning the AOL area was built on a message board model with me being the only one allowed to post messages to get news articles and press releases online for users to read. Later on there was an automated process implemented when my area was updated and I was then able to use their Rainman process for posting press releases without having to type them live online any more. Around that time is when I started putting my PC Industry database online as well, but more about that later in another article.

In the earlier Commodore days it was pretty easy to get press releases and news articles since almost everyone knew who I was from the magazine articles. As I moved to the PC market I had to work harder to get information since there were many more companies involved and lots of other competing news services. So I started cataloging company names and basic product information, scanning hundreds of publications every month looking for new companies. I used that database to generate mailings with letters requesting companies to add my name to their press release mailing list and offering to distribute their information for free. I was mailing hundreds of letters every month and then answering tons of inquiring phone calls from companies wanting more information about what I was doing. Since my service was free to the companies I was getting a lot of interest!

In the beginning, the press releases were hand typed online, then they were done offline but still hand typed. Eventually I made a deal with the kind folks at Canon who provided a very good quality scanner with an auto document feeder and I managed to get a copy of OmniPage OCR software from the publisher. With the new scanner and OCR software I was then able to scan paper press releases, convert them to text files and clean them up, add my special header information and upload them to AOL for automatic processing. What used to take hours was now done in minutes and the volume of press releases grew to over 300 per week at one point.

At some point in time we added various download libraries to my area and I started collecting demo files for various products and making them available to users. Then shareware authors started sending me their releases, so I wound up posting their press release and then uploading their software to the download libraries. At one point I had two computers doing uploads to AOL day and night. At first all the uploads were going into my libraries and then AOL had me pass on the files to the regular file libraries where the sysops in those areas processed the files and made them available to users. Eventually I got away from doing a lot of the uploads and went back to concentrating on the news articles and database.

When PC Expo started in New York City I would go to the show with a friend and get copies of every press release published at the show. I had press credentials and would hit the press booth first to collect the packets made available there to the press. Then we'd walk through the show to introduce my news service to each company present and look for anything we might have missed in the press booth. It was absolutely amazing the amount of information we'd collect at one of these shows! If you've seen the plastic trays used by the post office, the ones that are the size of a laundry basket, we would typically fill three or more of those trays with paper. Once home everything would be cataloged in my database and all the press releases would be scanned and posted online within a week after the show. I hate to think how many hundreds of press releases were handled! The only problem was that AOL never realized what we had and never really publicized what was available.

Besides the mailings asking for press releases I also had an automated process that scanned a large list of company websites looking for their new press releases as well. Those press releases were gathered and included with the releases received in the mail, via email or by fax and everything was posted online. I later expanded my listing of web resources to monitor online publications, organizations, events, company/product indexs, press release libraries, distributors and more from throughout the PC industry. I wrote a program that built a website index to list all my resources and made that available on AOL and then later to everyone via the web. The website was called the PC Industry URL Reference List and there are copies still available in the Wayback Machine at archive.org -- click here for a sample! Just keep in mind most of the links listed are no longer valid since this was back in 1999.

My New Product News area on AOL continued to flourish and grow over the years, with lots of off shoots along the way. I had a similar news area on Delphi from September 1993 to March 1997, plus I did a news distribution for local BBS systems via BBS Press from October 1994 to December 1995, but more about them later. AOL finally pulled the plug on my news service in November 1997 when they decided not to renew my contract. It was an amazing run, I just wish I had the time to make it a full time effort. I was working a full time engineering job all the time I was running the newswire if you can imagine that! Work all day, come home and eat a quick dinner, then handle the database and newswire until about 2 AM. Next day, repeat the above! I probably would have killed myself if AOL hadn't cancelled the contract, so they probably did me a favor in the long run. In any event, I had a lot of fun along the way and hopefully people found the information useful.


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