AOL disk collecting

From Academic Kids

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Various AOL CD-ROMs with packaging removed.

AOL disk collecting is the collecting of CD-ROMs and diskettes distributed by the America Online company, containing computer software for accessing the American Online service. These CD-ROMs and diskettes are somewhat infamous for their excessive distribution. While disliked by many Americans who received them en masse during the late 1990s and early 2000s, AOL disks also provide an entertaining hobby for a few. The collector need not harbor any positive feelings toward the AOL Time Warner corporation, or even be an AOL subscriber, although some of the larger collections are held by former and current AOL employees.

While there are no official figures released by AOL Time Warner, it is estimated there are over 1000 disk-designs in existence and over a billion disks have been produced in total. This direct mail marketing strategy is the brainchild of Janice Brandt, who joined the company in 1993 as the Director of Marketing Operations. It was a huge success, and soon after AOL became the biggest internet service provider in the world.

Characteristics of AOL Disks

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Collectible Bugs Bunny AOL CD-ROM in original packaging.
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Various AOL floppies with packaging removed.

Collecting of AOL disks started becoming popular as AOL introduced intricate designs on the labels of their CD-ROMs. Some of these feature references to movies and pop culture cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny. Others have marketing terms printed on the CD-ROM such as "Gold", "Platinum" or "Titanium". Still others are special themed versions for holidays such as Christmas. Finally, there is any number of disks not fitting into particular category and are apparently only the result of their designer's imagination.

When looking at an AOL CD-ROM or diskette, there are certain characteristics to look for besides the overall design:

  • Packaging - AOL disks come in various packaging options including cardboard holders, jewel cases, DVD-size boxes, tin boxes, and various plastic enclosures. Tin boxes are especially popular with collectors. It is generally not recommended to remove the packaging in order to preserve quality and value of the disk.
  • Media - while AOL CD-ROMs are quite widespread, there was also a number of 3.5" AOL floppy diskettes released, especially for older versions. These are considered more valuable. Especially coveted by collectors are 5.25" AOL floppies.
  • Version Number - this would be the version number of the AOL software such as "AOL 9.0". Older version (especially 3.0 and below) disks are usually considered more valuable. It is somewhat unusual, although possible, for two or more versions to share the same design.
  • Number of Free Hours - The number of free hours advertized on the CD-ROM. Often two disks with the same design will have a different number of free hours.
  • Language and locality - AOL CD-ROMs come in a variety of languages and are released in several countries. Non-english CD-ROMs are considered more valuable in the United States due to the difficulty of obtaining them.
  • Release Year - the year a CD-ROM or diskette was released. Usually printed above or next to the serial number.
  • Serial Number - the majority (but not all) AOL disks have a serial number printed on them. Sometimes two disks with identical characteristics an designs will have different serial numbers. For all intents and purposes, only when two disks have the same serial number are they considered identical, although the true nature of the serial numbers is not known.

Obtaining AOL Disks

Current version AOL disks can be obtained in several ways:

  • Ordering a CD-ROM from AOL
  • Found as inserts into newspapers and magazines.
  • Bundled with software or hardware (modems in particular)
  • In certain retail stores (computer/electronics stores in particular)

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