It's getting really trendy these days for TV commercials to give an AOL keyword right after mentioning the URL of the thing being advertised. Is it just me, or does anybody else think this is a giant leap backward?

In the bad old days of computing, when things weren't yet all interconnected as seamlessly as they are now, it was common to see long recitations of different methods of getting to some online resource, depending on what system or network you were on. For instance, one couldn't simply give one's email address as a short string with a userid, an at sign, and a domain name -- for one thing, domain names didn't even exist yet; for another, not everybody's system could send email to everybody else's, and when they could, it was with a variety of system-specific syntaxes. So you often saw such signature monstrosities in Usenet and Arpanet as:

John Doe -- MIT AI Labs
UUCP: {ucbvax|ihnp4}!crash!bang!pow!jdoe
Bitnet: jdoe@MIT2

Later on, when commercial online services started appearing, they added to the Babel of incompatible addresses:

CompuServe: 72057,3267
Prodigy: JFGK26A

and so forth. And it was even worse if you wanted to make some information resource accessible. Say you just finished a meticulously researched discography of the musical artist you're obsessed with. Naturally you need to immediately disseminate it to the whole world, which is (or ought to be) waiting with bated breath to download it. The thing to do is to upload it to as many places as you possibly can, even signing up for accounts on online services just so you can get to their file areas to publish your masterpiece. With that step finished, now you need to tell people how to get it. This can get really lengthy, as you've got to give a long series of alternative instructions...

FTP: Log in to, go to the pub/foo/bar subdirectory, and download file thissucks.txt. Or if that site is too busy, try instead.
CompuServe: Go to the Music forum, and into file area 3, where you can find thssks.txt (darn that six-letter filename limit).
Joe Blow's BBS: Call 1-914-555-6666 (1200 baud, 7 data bits 1 stop bit, no parity), log in, and go to file area 13, where you can find thissucks.txt.
FidoNet File Request: Request thissucks.txt from node 1:380/7.

And so on, maybe also giving instructions to telnet to some site somewhere, or how to find the file in the newfangled Gopher system.

But these Bad Old Days ended, didn't they? First, the diverse networked computers of the world gradually became interconnected under the umbrella of the Internet. Then, Tim Berners-Lee had the clever insight to create a unified addressing system, the URL (or, more properly, the URI) to provide a single syntax for referring to online resources of many different data formats and retrieval protocols. This, much more than HTTP or HTML, was the brilliant innovation of the Web. Even resources available only by Gopher or FTP now had a URL, and could be referred to concisely and consistently without multiple sets of lengthy instructions.

So, nowadays, with pretty much anyone with access to networked computers at all having access to the Internet (even AOLers), anybody with something online they want the world to see needs only give a single URL; none of this "If you're on CompuServe, do this... on FidoNet, do that... and so on...".

Then, why the heck do so many companies feel compelled to accompany their URL with a proprietary keyword for access to their site on a particular (crummy) online service? Are they getting kickbacks from AOL???

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