Remembering the Shiny Disc Wars

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I confess I never used AOL. But there is no denying it was huge. It was a key gateway for a lot of people to access the Internet in the early days of its existence. Talk about a major A-OL.

The biggest reason it was so huge? They had this crazy idea to manufacture CDs by the millions (loaded with their installation software) and mail them to everyone in the US! Did you know there is a group of people who collect these discs now?

I just did some checking and found some mind-blowing stats showing just how big AOL was in its prime.

AOL mailed 660 million disks during this promotional deluge. Keep in mind the population of the US was around 260 million at the time. That is almost 3 discs per person, not just per household!

Now stay with me here, this is where it gets fun. I am saying that way before Netflix, AOL was shipping discs to every city, every street, and every person in the US. No wonder Netflix knew it could be done! They watched AOL do it for years.

At the height of its DVD service, Netflix had almost 20 million customers and 40-50 million discs in its catalog. AOL did it bigger. They had 26 million US customers and hundreds of millions of discs in circulation.

Don’t forget we also had the BMG Music and Columbia House mail-order music clubs around that time. You could get 12 music CDs for the price of one! So did AOL ship more discs than BMG and Columbia House too?

Digging around, it seems the music clubs (BMG and Columbia House) are estimated to have shipped over a billion CDs in their heyday. (Interestingly, I also read that they didn’t properly license the music they were selling until 2006. Ripping off the musician, no real shocker there.) So all told, they rivaled or perhaps surpassed AOL’s reach in terms of discs delivered.

With this info, it seems my old hunch about the post office is clear. In the late 90s, the mail carrier’s job was little more than transporting shiny discs from place to place.


Also published on Medium.

One thought on “Remembering the Shiny Disc Wars”

  1. interesting post. I remember getting 10 CD’s for a penny. how could this be? basically they burned the discs and got their money back on customers who thought they needed to buy one at full price, that they still ripped off from the artist. my feiend had 10 subscriptions and received many CD’s and never returned any of them or paid. they never went after him for the money either. makes sense since it was illegal what they were doing. and I defintely had a few AOL install discs laying around.

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