I remember when I first started using the internet. It was the early 90’s and I was in grade school at the time. We had a laptop with around 2 MB of RAM and a 640×400 screen. Connecting to the internet was accomplished via dialup, of course. This required plugging a phone line into a cable that then connected to the computer, tying up the phone line until, a year or so later, we got a second line just for getting on the ‘net and the occasional fax.
It is funny to think about all of this since, after all, my cell phone has better resolution than that laptop, and 2 MB is not even large enough for most MP3 files. Our modem had a max speed of 14.4k. The whole setup was somewhere in the $2-3k range, if I remember correctly. At any rate, these were my formative years as far as computers go. We had a few ISPs, including the now defunct CompuServe. Another one, which I used for most of the 90s and early 2000s, was America Online, commonly known as AOL.
If you are over the age of 15, you should probably remember that a primary way AOL would get new customers was through what came to be known as free trial disks. These were initially 3.5-inch floppy disks, which became fairly common through the late 1990s. I remember finding AOL free trial “floppies” a couple of times in the Sunday newspaper, along with the store advertising inserts. These efforts paled in comparison to the AOL free trial CD, though.
As addressed in one of my favorite questions on Quora, AOL printed millions of these disks. You probably remember getting them in the mail, in magazines and other periodicals, handed out at events, at checkout counters, bundled with other software, etc. If you remember anything of AOL trial CDS, you remember they were everywhere. Even people who could give a damn about the environment would scoff the appalling waste created by these efforts.
At the same time, in hindsight, they appeared to be a wildly successful technique. Even with the massive production and distribution cost, expense of growing their call centers to assist new signups, need for increased capacity – not to mention the people who would jump from one trial to another without ever paying – America Online had over 30 million members across the world at its peak. They attracted customers in a few main ways, but the free trial disks were huge in attracting new users of the ‘net. Because you needed software to dial up, having it given to you really did influence the provider that you ended up using.