Review of Commercial Service: America Online

Cathy Gellis 4/22/95

I was watching Politically Incorrect a few nights ago. The topic was pornography on the Internet. I generally like the show, but this particular episode was ridiculous. Nobody, not the host, nor any of the guests had the slightest idea of what they wer e talking about. When the question was posed of whether it was a problem that children had access to adult material, one of the guests said that it wasn't a problem. Oh no, she said. It's not a problem for children to get access to adult material on th e Internet. There's this little button called "Parental Control."

A button on the Internet? What on Earth was she talking about? As it happened, I knew. She was referring to America Online, whose software includes a button called "Parental Control." I knew this because I had recently installed the software and signe d up for my 10 free hours.

I personally think it's dangerous that the common perception that the Information Infrastructure is restricted to AOL and its ilk. They are private, controlled networks. They may have their own positive attributes, but they are far from public, and they certainly are not the "Internet." The people who believe it is the Internet are the same people who will be voting for policy makers who will determine the future of the Internet. Unfortunately they don't know what they are talking about.

That being said, AOL is an interesting program, and can be judged on its own merits. Or lack of them. Granted I began my experiment with a condescending attitude, but I was still willing to be impressed. Unfortunately, AOL didn't get started on a very good foot. Installing the software, though a relatively simple procedure, was extremely aggravating. Particularly when I discovered that the software I had installed would only support communications up to 2400 baud. Granted there were many local acces s numbers, but there were an awful lot located in Pinole. I didn't know that many people lived in Pinole, let alone that Pinole is the AOL capital of the Bay Area. The further irony is that the software I was using had come bundled with my modem - a 14, 400 baud modem.

Ultimately, this plethora of slower lines and shortage of faster numbers decreased the experience considerably. Though I didn't run into problems with a busy signal trying to connect, the chat rooms became surreal. It was impossible to have a conversati on because of the tremendous lag time. My comments would appear on the screen immediately, but it would be minutes before I ever got a response, at which point I didn't care about what I had been talking about anymore.

Eventually I installed version 2.0 and got connected to the network. There were many menus, many prompts. I was asked to read the "Rules of the Road" when I got online, which I did, though it was not as easy to find as they made it out to be. I got to choose my name, which wasn't a pleasant experience. All of my choices were being used. They suggested Cathy530 or something like that, so I eventually decided on CG530, to commemorate both my own initials and the number AOL had assigned to me. It turns out that this wasn't a bad choice. In the chat rooms people often address other chatters by their login names. The tendency was to drop the final numbers and so I was addressed simply by my initials.

What I found particularly insidious was the fact that even though my 10 hours were free, I had to give them my credit card number in advance, on faith that they weren't going to arbitrarily charge me either through an error on my part of perhaps using my account for 10 hours and 1 minute, or a computer error on their part, or that I would have inadvertently wandered into the areas which involve an extra charge, a policy that was not sufficiently explained at any time during my start-up.

I checked out the area designated "Internet." There was a reasonably adequate mail program. They also professed to have an archie server, which consisted of directions for mailing a message to the archie server at Rutgers. I would wonder how Rutgers fe els about this. Granted by virtue of being on the Internet Rutgers expects their server to experience heavy use from outsiders. But AOL specifically instructs users to use their server, with only one other choice, and surely this extra community provide s undo burden on the Rutgers system. However, since there was something I was looking for myself, I did my own Archie search, and received a message within some span of 24 hours. It may have been quicker than that, but I am unsure because I had the serv er send its results to another account that I didn't check. There was also FTP software, which I didn't use because I didn't have a place I particularly cared to go to.

There was a memo indicating that a Web browser was to be installed soon, which in a way is a frightening prospect. The WWW is already burdened enough, and this extra million people or so who will go to all the popular sites will make it grind even slower . On the other hand, considering how many AOL users think they are already on the Internet, many may not even bother to check out that area.

To an extent they don't need to. There is a reasonably large base of content on the service. I scoff at the price, because there is no way that Internet access should cost anything approaching the $9+ a month plus $3+/hour connect choice, particularly w hen thus far AOL users aren't even getting access to as vast an information source as the Internet. On the other hand, there are many periodicals which post to the service. If one canceled all their regular subscriptions and read everything on AOL, the service might pay for itself. However, reading is time consuming and connect charges are exorbitant.

The one element I missed from the Internet section was a telnet ability. Granted, for many AOL users AOL is the extent of their telecomputing and probably have nowhere else to log onto, but there are some sites which people can log onto anonymously which they cannot do from AOL. Personally, I like integration. I would like to be able to check my other email from my AOL account so I don't necessarily have to disconnect and dial another number in order to gain access. Conversely, I would like to be able to check my AOL mail or login even from another account. The latter is not likely because users telnetting would lose the support of the AOL software. I also suspect that another reason AOL doesn't support that feature and has been slow in providing a Web browser is because they don't want their users to discover the true Internet world beyond their own AOL microcosm and take their subscriptions to more affordable providers. Furthermore, I would be a fool to use up my connect time which I have to pay for to check out my accounts which are free or already paid for my monthly fees. On the other hand, there is such a thing as convenience as sometimes its worth paying for. If that weren't true, AOL probably wouldn't have much of a business.

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c. 1995 Cathy Gellis