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AOL announced Tuesday that it has opened the API to AIM Call Out, a move designed to let programmers more easily build products that tap into AIM for making calls over the net. The API is freely available, and applications built with it can let people call using AOL’s network to bypass the ordinary telephony infrastructure.

Anyone who knows me, knows how passionate I am about companies that build enabling technologies for developers. However, we haven’t looked at the AOL OpenVoice API that was announced yesterday, nor do we intend to.

May 5th, 2006 a program named AIM Phoneline was announced amid a volley of press reports. Offering a free incoming DID, and unlimited outgoing calls for $14.95 per month, AIM Phoneline promised integration with AIM and with AOL e-mail, plus a platform for integration that would allow new applications to be built.

At the time of the announcement, plans for a developer platform were hinted at. Subsequently, when we at iotum were approached to use the platform, we signed on as one of the premier developers. The many years of platform experience we brought to the table, and our willingness to work with early APIs were a benefit to AOL. Naturally, there was a huge benefit to us in being first on their platform as well. We agreed to be ready to demonstrate product on September 8th, 2006 and to be ready to launch product in their still-to-be-finished AIM Phoneline Storefront by November 30th, 2006.

The AIM Phoneline Developers program was announced September 7, 2006. A week later, iotum was one of three developers (the others were MyNumo and mVox) demonstrating early products at the AOL booth at VON. A whirlwind of promotional activity occurred. At the end of September, MyNumo’s Bill Volk, Andy Abramson and myself spent the day at AOL headquarters in Virginia recording podcasts with AOL VP’s Ragui Kamel and Alex Quilici, along with Sharon Kasimow, director of AOL Voice Services Product Management. At the Voice 2.0 conference in mid-October, AOL Senior VP Ragui Kamel was clearly one of the stars. AOL was lauded by the press and blogging community for the depth and breadth of their vision — America’s telephone company for the 21st century, they were called.

The program never launched. The official word was that the program was delayed to Q1 of 2007 because of AOL’s inability to get the storefront coded in time. Before the November 30th launch date, however, AOL announced massive layoffs. The VP’s we had been working with, as well as 2/3 of the AOL Voice staff, were gone within weeks. In late January we travelled to Halifax to meet with the new VP of AOL Voice, Mike Smith, and received assurances that AOL remained committed to AIM Phoneline, their ecosystem, partners and subscribers. Shortly after, Smith was gone as well, another victim of AOL’s downsizing.

Working with AOL was a disaster for us and nearly put us out of business.

  • In order to handle the demand for our services that we expected the AOL agreement to generate, we had staffed up customer support people, and diverted resources from other projects.
  • In January we were forced to go through our own layoffs, as we could not sustain the burn required to support AOL without a launch date in sight.
  • We were forced to consider selling the company or to raise more capital on unfavourable terms as first the launch date extended and the program was then cancelled.
  • We lost core development staff as their confidence in management’s ability to raise the capital required was shaken.
  • The amount of capital we raised was insufficient to sustain the effort required to sell our applications to carriers, and so we shifted strategy to a downloadable application for the BlackBerry instead.

When we had the temerity to ask AOL to compensate us for the harm we had suffered because of their failure to live up to our agreement, we were rewarded with a legal letter pointing to the cancellation clause in our contract and a subsequent termination.

The lesson I learned? AOL seems to work like an old world media company where properties get cancelled at will when the ratings dip, not a technology company that’s willing to persist and refine until they’ve delighted customers. AOL appears to have a very different mentality from the software business, which we didn’t understand when we entered into business with them. I believe media is in their DNA, and that nothing will change that.

It’s two years later, and AOL is going to try again with AOL Open Voice. Speaking as a software developer I can’t imagine ever again choosing to make an important business or technical decision based on assurances from AOL.

So to AOL, I ask “what has changed that the development community should trust AOL again?” And to developers I say, “let the buyer beware”.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • William Volk May 8, 2008, 1:46 am

    The team at MyNuMo put in an extraordinary effort to build an entire ring-back system and storefront for AIM Phoneline. MyNuMo is a self-funded/bootstrapped company, we don’t have the luxury of VC funding to pay the costs associated with this project.

    My hope is that someone at AOL will appreciate the effort we put in and take advantage of our expertise on mobile platforms such as the iPhone and find a way of making it up to us.

    I would be happy to work with AOL on mobile and web based casual games, iPhone applications or any mutually beneficial initiatives.

    I can only hope that some executive at AOL appreciates the relationship we worked so hard to maintain with their company.

    William Volk
    CEO, MyNuMo

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