AOL's rise as the leading Internet company has been marked by several massive takeovers, culminating in its purchase of Time-Warner at the beginning of this year. But even more symbolic was its acquisition of the very first new economy company, Netscape, in 1998.
Following this, many expected AOL to challenge Microsoft for supremacy in the online world. But AOL almost went out of its way to back Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser against its own Netscape Navigator product. It seemed almost as if AOL had conceded Microsoft's victory in this area.
But recent moves indicate that AOL was simply preparing its attack. On 5 April 2000, it announced "a groundbreaking family of specialized Internet appliances... that will deliver AOL's content, features and services to consumers in every room of their homes."
These new devices are a countertop appliance, wireless Web pad and desktop appliance, "small, lightweight tools for accessing the Internet in a variety of ways during the course of a consumer's daily life." In other words, they are attempts to move beyond the traditional PC market.
Just as important was an equally innovative move beyond traditional PC technologies.
These devices would not only be running the free operating system GNU/Linux, but also be using revolutionary chips from the start-up company Transmeta.
Transmeta is perhaps best-known as the employer of Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. But since the launch of its Crusoe chips, Transmeta is beginning to emerge as a serious rival to the other member of the Wintel duopoly, Intel, in the area of mobile and low-power devices.
And this is the real importance of the AOL appliances. They represent a direct assault on the status quo in every way: form, factor, operating system and processor. They also represent a wake-up call to everyone engaged in e-business. No longer can it be assumed that the vast majority of visitors to Web sites are using PCs running Windows, which sit on desks in an office or home study. If the Net appliance idea takes off - and no company is better placed than AOL to make that happen - then we are witnessing nothing less than the start of the post-PC era, with all that this entails for Web-site design and services.