America Online what a concept. Unfortunately, the reality proves less than phenomenal...not even a spectacle. So what's it doing in this class? Perhaps merely instructive of how the have-nots may be alerted to the world of electronic information...through chat windows, where one can meet such fascinating noteworthies as "mrpenishead" who was the first person I encountered. Hey... I thought this was a censored environment!! Who let you in?

To get back to the point, I had an intensely frustrating time getting connected to this thing. Let me outline my experience:

I do not own a home computer which supports Windows of any variety, Mosaic nor (heaven forbid) Netscape. In my house, I look through the windows over the mosaic of sunlight released from the fingers of fisherman casting netscapes of wonder into the silence. (I live on a lake and would rather be fishing than touring America Online). I do have a friend with all of the above, and a disc from a magazine, which promises instant connection....not so easy. After hours of figuring out how to load and connect via Mosaic, we determine we really need Netscape to run at faster than 2400 baud.

Forget it, I'm the typical home user at this point, the one not affiliated with a University, the one with outdated equipment, slow connections and the wrong connectivity software. I'm testing this sucker at 2400 baud.

Bad idea. Everything has to be downloaded to see it, and even though they warn you of how long it will take to download, and assuming you have time to wait, (2 minutes...30 minutes...I do not want whatever you have to show or tell me that much) there is no way to stop it if you err and try this. Well, I try it once and even though I am warned that the download will take 2-3 minutes, I have to abort after 15 min. when my patience is exhausted. Once the hourglass shows up, one can not abort the download so one has to reboot...bad design.

That leaves the chat windows. What shall I try...Lifestyles? Games and Entertainment?... I enter the one for new users, having been forewarned of flamers, I figure this will be all new people, innocent and curious, like me...Lost in America. Wrong. Hello mrpenishead. This is the first time my friend has been hooked into electronic America in any form. Her husband warns her from across the room that she had better be careful...he has heard of rape in cyberspace, and mrpenishead sounds like a prime suspect. I must leave the newbees chat room. I jump in and out of a few more chat rooms, sitting in on any variety of inane conversations, and finding it hard to keep track of who is who...neither do I care. If this is truly America Online I might reconfigure on another continent.

Lets get out of here and try M-TV online. Unpromising. The TV listings point to an empty file and the top-20 list is two weeks out of date. I should pay for this news? This is supposed to be an exclusive offering of AOL, along with The New York Times and Time. I think they have to do better. Apparently, so does Time, who is beginning to wonder why they need a middleman service provider, according to recent news articles Išve read.

This brings up a related issue. Credit cards. My friend had to enter a card number in to get access to her *free* ten hours. Is this really free? What do you imagine they are doing with that credit card number? What do you imagine hackers might do with it? Do mailing lists, market research or fraud come to mind?

After two and a half hours of running in slow mode and finding nothing more than unnoteworthy chat rooms, news and magazines online (I want my news over the radio or in print...portable), and a variety of shopping opportunities I leave AOL until I can run in faster mode. It seems to me that users are mainly paying for download time in these pay by the hour services.

This never happens. I spend one whole day trying to load Netscape onto a portable IBM and even with the help of three UM computer assistants, I fail.

Well, since I did not care for the offerings of AOL, as far as I saw them, I decide to test another online product, a new search engine called INFOSEEK, and try to determine what others think about it and the future of AOL, since this is not a product I would pay for now. Here is a sampling of what I found (interspersed with my emboldened comments):
Among on-line fanatics, a certain amount of flaming is considered inevitable and even good fun. But most neophytes would be shocked and disturbed to be subjected to the kind of personalized abuse that flamers like to heap on their victims. Like disruptive demonstrators at a political rally, flame mail writers ruin the experience of a much larger group and ultimately damage the credibility of their own cause. ......Lately, flame mailers on the Internet have been ganging up on the rookies from America Online who are making their first tentative forays into the Usenet newsgroups. I guess the thinking is if you can scare them away, they'll leave you alone and won't come back.

Flame mail burns users (commentary), Computerworld, Dec 05, 1994, p69 By Paul Gillin (Gillin is Computerworld's editor.)

Worked for me mrpenishead. Somehow, I am not suprised that this is a common enough occurrence to merit mention in Computerworld...but why would anyone pay for this?

............

Sally (not her real name) has had two in-person relationships with men she met through the America Online chat rooms, and she counts many others as on-line friends. Interactive chat, where users assume screen names and type messages back and forth, is one of the most popular services of all on-line networks.

Wow. I guess I missed those rooms. What is this? Online theater or pickup joint? Still, I can not imagine paying for a virtual date or virtual friends either.

............

With more than 6 million users of commercial on-line services now and more than 13 million expected by 1998, environments such as CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online are secure, structured proving grounds where companies can experiment with on-line sales and target audiences. CompuServe claims 2 million users, mostly businessmen; Prodigy claims 2 million users, with more women and children than CompuServe; and America Online claims 1 million users and a younger, more consumer-oriented crowd.

Michael Sullivan,Computerworld, Jan 02, 1995, p25. (emphasis added)

I guess the added emphasis speaks for itself...buyer beware

............

It's all about new programming, he said at a Los Angeles press conference on April 3. America Online is banking on unique content to stand out from the crowd once Microsoft Corp. launches its online network. The Microsoft Network, which will be built into its Windows 95 software, is expected to appear in August.

Commercial networks have long relied on electronic versions of popular magazines, newspapers and TV networks to attract subscribers -- and they've signed exclusive contracts with publishers and broadcasters whenever possible.

But the days of exclusive deals are numbered....``When AOL becomes just another icon on Windows 95, they'll have to distinguish themselves from the other media content on the Microsoft Network,'' Rinzel said. ``They've got some cash and they're creative enough to come up with interesting ways of using it.

America Online has hefty cash reserves stockpiled from public stock offerings and its own investors. The company will spend ``tens of millions'' of that money on several dozen Greenhouse start-ups over the coming months, Leonsis said.

As for creativity, the current crop of Greenhouse winners are brimming with it. New ventures, which will begin to pop up on America Online over the next two months, include:

-- The Health Zone, from World Pulse Inc., a cross between Weight Watchers and the local gym with a cyberspace spin. Dieters can record their daily calorie count, pair up with a weight-loss buddy, ask advice from fitness trainers, and talk through temptations in the ``Chocolate Cravings'' chat room.

-- The Motley Fool Inc., the contrarian-minded personal finance service that's already a big hit on the service. Brothers David and Tom Gardner are taking their ``foolish'' perspective to entertainment, culture and sports, where they'll follow a bill through Congress and ``show why nine of 10 sportscasters should be fired,'' David Gardner said.

-- NetNoir, providing Afro-centric news, sports, entertainment, games and other information from around the globe. ``There was a hole in the market,'' said E. David Ellington, an ex-entertainment lawyer who co-founded NetNoir Inc. and persuaded notables such as musician Herbie Hancock to sit on the board.

America Online is investing under $1 million in each start-up. In return, it receives an equity stake plus a share of online revenues. All the new ventures plan to use their America Online connection to jump into World Wide Web sites, CD-ROM publishing, books and syndicated radio or TV shows.

America Online hopes new-ideas incubator will flourish, Reuters News Service, Apr 05, 1995 By Michelle V. Rafter

Well, this is more interesting...creating new products rather than putting what already exists online. This could go either way...maybe a new commercial outlet for bright new entrepreneurs (hopefully) but more likely will degenerate into pay -per-play games (or some such) as dictated by the entertainment fancies of the general public.

............

Love Line Disconnected ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) _ Fans went a little too far, so the Love line got cut off.

America Online took the unprecedented step of deleting the computer message board devoted to grunge-rock singer Courtney Love and her band, Hole.

The network said fans repeatedly broke the computer network's rules, USA Today reported Tuesday. One user made a death threat and was stripped of membership, America Online spokeswoman Margaret Ryan said.

The rules prohibit criminal activity, profanity, and racial, ethnic, religious or sexual slurs.

Love Line Disconnected, Associated Press, Apr 11, 1995 , Wire Services

I see, a service one pays for and agrees to be censored by. Even the telephone company would not dare. Why is it that stripped of membership sounds like being court martialed?

............

AOL's Piracy Woes

Attack and Counterattack

America Online has responded to actions of online pirates who illegally distributed commercial software and harassed the author of an earlier Macworld article exposing their activities (see "Piracy Ring on America Online," News, Macworld, March 1995).

As previously reported, software pirates routinely abuse AOL's start-up kits to gain anonymous accounts, which they use to trade commercial software online. A subculture of young traders has arisen; rival trading rings with spicy-sounding titles welcome only members with a proven track record of anteing up good "warez" (pirated programs). Blacklists are circulated, containing the names of participants who received good software but failed to reciprocate. At almost all hours of the day, private electronic "rooms" are created for the purpose of trading; using a pseudonymous temporary account, Macworld was offered $900 worth of commercial software by E-mail within 15 minutes of arriving in such a room.

Perhaps worse, increasing numbers of these anonymous traders are graduating to hacker status. Using freely circulated instruction sheets and macro kits, they have learned to access private AOL staff areas, corrupt message areas, and even delete or cancel members' accounts. One set of hint sheets Macworld received provides step-by-step instructions for the following:

* obtaining new members' passwords (by convincing them that the hacker is an AOL staff member)

* obtaining working credit card numbers (to gain further free AOL access and to order equipment by mail order)

* "dubbing"--editing members' typed comments in chat rooms, to make them appear to say things they never actually said

* sending a "mail bomb" --automatically generated duplicate messages, sent to a victim's mailbox by the hundreds, until that mailbox is full

* causing another member's hard drive to thrash incessantly (on Windows PCs only)

The loopholes for hackers and freeloaders may be closing, however. America Online is reluctant to discuss specifics of its counterattack, for fear of giving miscreants advance warning. However, many of the live Mac-software trading rooms are being shut down almost as soon as they're formed; others are often visited by "narcs" posing as traders. New accounts started with phony credit cards are being cut off more promptly, and various other card-verification schemes are in place. "When we become aware of [start-up kit] certificate numbers that are continually being reused, we take appropriate action," said Pam McGraw, spokeswoman for AOL.

AOL has now developed the ability to resurrect a screen name that's been deleted by the hackers, and is rumored to have call-tracing technology in the works. And while AOL won't confirm it, a knowledgeable source told Macworld that several of the worst offenders have been caught and slapped with large fines. According to this source, one of the pirates even landed in jail.--Macworld Staff

June 1995

Ah ha...and now what do you think happens to those credit cards? I am now absolutely convinced I want nothing further to do with AOL. Security be damned, who wants narcs sniffing at your surfboard?

This is just a sampling of articles read, but I think I have made my point. As a final precaution, I should warn the unwary user that although my friend and I thought we had read all the warnings in the sign up kit concerning automatic disconnection after 10 hours without charge, we clearly did not read the fine print...It seems the whole offer expires after 30 days and if you have not used up your 10 hours in 30 days they automatically start charging by the month. No notice, nothing. It seems you only get warned if you actually use up your 10 hours...again...buyer beware.