"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 August 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Credit Check


[AOL Hah!]

"It's like snack food for your

mind!" In the cramped confines

of a Shuttle by United that

should have left at least

two hours ago, waiting on a gin

and tonic that should have been

passed through your bladder at

least one hour ago, such

pathetic copy only seems moving

once. The dainty bag ("INFLITEPAK,"

goes the parlance) wrapping the

floppy screams "Free!" at least

three times before you even turn

the sack over, and, of course,

AOL is free. Perfectly free. In

precisely the same way the Mylar

fold of 13 Eagle Snack mixed

nuts handed to you with the disk

was free. With purchase of

service. Free.


It's Easy.


It must be a miracle - we're not

pushing the rolling stone

anymore, yet it both continues

to tumble forward and gather an

offputting mossy film. Like

watching a child you nursed from

infancy grow into a fine,

strapping young enforcer for the

local drug lord, the

prostitution of the Internet

would be more disturbing if it

hadn't been telegraphing its

intentions to the guidance

counselor since the ninth grade.

The fear grows from recognizing

that it's a big, bad world out

there, much bigger and badder

than Junior.


[AOL Hmmmm?]

6.9% introductory APR? No annual

fee? An AOL credit card? Again,

it's too good to be true: log on

to AOL, make and pay for your

reservations with the AOL Visa,

and earn free time on AOL, more -

if you say it fast enough it's

irresistible - "free shopping

time." So what if even Ringo

Starr has his own branded credit

card; does he have his own

online service? The AOL Visa,

like the apocryphal Visa

browser, stands for more than a

cheap laugh among friends; it's

a convergence more deceptively

natural than a peanut butter

cup: freedom to be secure,

security to be free.


It's Fun.


Like all over-sophisticated

concepts, it's destined to fail,

if only because its success

would be too big to imagine. If

AOL can get into the credit card

business, what's stopping

American Express from getting

into the online service game?

Aside from a minor massage of

their tag line - "Don't leave

home without it!" might benefit

from a surgical replacement of

"home" with "home page" -

familiarity might breed more

content than contempt when one's

balance is on the line. And an

AmEx network might finally put

an end to the loopy navel-gazing

act of pondering the arrival of

the web's Seinfeld. What better

way to complete the Mobius strip

of AmEx's recent promotions than

to allow the purchase of items

on Jerry's shopping list via

AmExOL's online strip mall?



The issue is a renegotiation of

what the key tentacles of an

ambitious cross-media behemoth

must be. Sure, Microsoft could

launch its own credit card,

airline, auto-manufacturing

plant, and television network,

but it's cursed with an

already-successful product, and

not dumb enough to take such

absurd risks. Better for Virgin

to append an online service to

its empire of cola, department

stores, CDs, and flight - better

to move into an industry where

system crashes only raise



[Could it be?]

The intangible world of digital

churn provides a nonstick

coating whose amenability is

often underestimated. What would

the ValuJet equivalent of this

week's AOL fumble be? AOL is

thrown into offline opacity,

accompanied by a cascade of

rumors that began to gather

steam shortly before the access

curtain fell. Loose lips wrapped

themselves around nuggets which

had it that millions of users

were sent bogus "surveys,"

soliciting credit card numbers

for the one-time offer of 30

free hours for the unprecedented

bargain value of $5. Stolen

passwords, AOL website submersed

in darkness, hints of a

follow-up "massive attack." Who

Jewel-cased Case? Who cares?

Within 24 hours, AOL returns to

business as usual with an uproar

leaving an even fainter echo

than JavaScript holes,

foreign-language policy

indiscretions and breast-cancer

malfeasance combined. Where data

streams, memory is cheap.


It's Free!


United is committed to beating

the competition, and AOL

promises to give you an edge

over yours. Just remember, you

may be having fun, making new

friends, and piloting

wheelbarrows full of cash

towards the bank, but while

you're waiting in line, the guy

at the bank counter is already

collecting interest. Maybe

Coca-Cola should think again

about that cable channel. Maybe

Netscape should reconsider

development of a new clean-air

automobile. Maybe not.

courtesy of the Duke of URL