In its prime, America Online was what you would call a virtual gated community. The service offered a plethora of features bundled into one package: several dial-up access points, online games, an instant messaging client, an email system, message boards, chat rooms (private, conference, auditoriums), and various portals that led to America Online-specific sites. For many customers, that encompassed the actual Internet, with its built-in Web browser acting as a gateway to a virtual untamed frontier. The service became so mainstream that TV commercials were as constant as McDonalds and Wal-Mart. There was even a romance movie based on two people using AOL to communicate.
Before the Internet boom in the late 1990s, America Online charged users by the hour. It wasn't until 1996 that the service went to a flat, monthly $19.99 rate. Eventually, the company branched out to the customers of competing ISPs, offering access to its gated community for an additional fee of $9.99 a month.
America Online saw a decline in growth after it merged with Time Warner. As it stands now, a static Web portal poses as America Online's personna, charged by the continued use of the company's AIM instant message client.
As of 2010, the subscription service still exists. However, America Online is now re-branded simply as AOL and geared more towards dial-up users. Broadband users can still subscribe to its premium features as before.