At last something good pops up on the web

Famed for its knack of irritating its users, the IT industry is breaking with tradition. Fiona Harvey reports on a bold move by AOL.

Anyone who uses AOL for internet access will soon find a subtle change in their online experience. As part of a wider overhaul of its services, the company has vowed to stop using pop-up ads.

The reason for this change of heart? AOL chief executive Jon Miller says: ‘The most important thing we offer advertisers is the chance to be part of a service that consumers love, and we’ve determined that pop-ups aren’t the best way to do that.’ Strip away the MBA-speak and you get: pop-up ads are really annoying and customers hate them.

Pop-ups are those little windows that, as the phrase suggests, pop up around your internet browser as you surf. They proliferate until before you know it they’ve obscured everything you were actually interested in seeing, bombarding you with invitations to visit casino websites or buy herbal versions of Viagra online.

Users hate them because they get in the way so much. Advertisers love them because they get the product right in your face. And that means internet sites love them too, because advertisers will pay more for these pop-up ads than for ordinary, less obtrusive, passive ads.

The question of internet advertising formats might not seem the most likely starting point for a revolution in computing. But AOL’s startling admission that it would stop doing something lucrative simply because it annoyed people marks an unusual moment in the IT industry. Take the words of Ted Leonsis, AOL’s vice-chairman: ‘If it’s bothering customers you shouldn’t do it.’

In other fields of human commerce the principle that annoying your customers is a bad idea has never been thought controversial. In the IT industry, though, customer service is for wimps.

For years computer users have been putting up with annoyances of every kind, from poor user interfaces to products that break down frequently. The industry has treated its unfortunate users with contempt more often than courtesy.

The history of Microsoft has been an exemplar in how to irritate your customer base. From early versions of Windows that lacked some of the most basic features of the Macintosh (remember eight dot three filenames?), to the dreaded ‘blue screen of death’, Microsoft seems unable to get its core business of operating systems right – even after 27 years.

George Colony, chief executive of the IT advisory firm Forrester Research and a respected voice in the industry, tells companies under no circumstances to install Microsoft’s much-vaunted Windows XP, the latest iteration launched last year. He declares: ‘It’s not ready for prime time.’

It’s not just Microsoft. During the internet boom features that were advertised as being in website creation tools frequently just did not exist, and the tools were so creaky and unreliable companies ended up trying to re-engineer them from scratch. As one frustrated webmaster told me: ‘This software just didn’t work. And the people who sold it blatantly lied about it.’

The industry seems to have difficulty learning from mistakes. When Intel launched the first Pentium chip with much fanfare in the mid-1990s mathematicians alerted the company to a floating point error in the chip. For months Intel pooh-poohed the error, reassuring customers that they would never encounter the flaw. Until, that is, the mathematicians showed that the error could easily muck up simple spreadsheet calculations. The defective chips had to be replaced. How much did this little exercise in humility cost Intel? Only about half a billion dollars.

Yet so little has changed. Even broadband internet access, aimed at consumers who should not need to be techie, frequently turns out to be a nightmare to install in the home, requiring multiple visits by telecoms engineers and hours hanging on the end of a tech support line.

Of course, other branches of industry have seen their fair share of ineptitudes. Among the UK’s engineering community there was almost palpable schadenfreude when the Millennium Bridge turned out too wobbly. But in mature industries such cases are thankfully rare. In the IT industry it often seems more the rule than the exception when technology fails to work properly.

That’s why AOL’s admission that it’s stupid to irritate your customers represents such a defining moment for computing. Let’s hope that other technology companies pay attention. In these days of technology doldrums, when IT departments have rediscovered stingy budgets, technology suppliers should be finding out that pleasing the customer can increase sales and maintain existing clients. But please don’t expect an industry founded on ignoring the customer to change overnight.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times

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