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Is that AOL there is...?

by Greg Swann

Well, seeing is believing, and now I know: America Online is lame.

Like you, like everyone with a computer and a mailing address, I have been deluged by America Online start-up disks. Fortunately, most of those disks have been for Windows, and I run a Macintosh. It was bracing to learn that state-of-the-art target marketing can, with pinpoint accuracy, send the wrong pitch to an unmotivated buyer 79.91% of the time. But the truth is, I was unmotivated even by the Mac disks that sometimes came by accident.

But then the Mac mail order houses started chucking in an AOL Mac disk with every order. And Staples and OfficeMax put racks of them by every cash register. We haven't gotten to the point of extremely clean-cut kids going door-to-door or hustling harried travelers at the airport, but America Online has taken to binding start-up disks in magazines, like those horrid scratch 'n' retch perfume samplers.

And then the woman I hope someday to make my ex-wife sent over a two-disk installer, the very latest release. My daughter Meredith has an AOL account, so the plan was that I would install it for her benefit. I didn't, or, rather, I hadn't, but I was fooling around with a cool little CD-ROM that came with the December Macworld--which, of course, had an AOL installer on it--and I decided to give it a gander.

What could it hurt? It only takes up slightly more disk space than the complete works of Shakespeare, and the worst that could happen is that my vital financial information would be shared with the FBI or less officious criminals. On the other hand, I had been promised by the endless TV commercials that I could take care of a long list of errands without leaving home and still have time for the big game. How could I lose?

I'm not going to describe the actual installation except to say that it was painfully painless. The software-driven hand-holding was verbose, redundant and way over the top. A user who knows absolutely nothing could find no cause for anxiety with the installer, since absolutely everything is patiently explained in immense and repetitive detail. And even then, there are "Really?" and "Really, really?" buttons for even the most trivial decisions. I don't want to write all this without saying something nice about America Online, so here it is: the installer is idiot-proof. If you happen to have an I.Q. somewhere above idiocy, your teeth will ache from all of the explanations, prompts and "Really, really?" prompts. But you will have the solace of knowing that no one--not an idiot, not a child, not a dead person having postmortem muscle spasms--can screw up the AOL install. Perfection is where you find it, after all.

But it's once you're connected to America Online that the real fun begins. Of course, there is plenty of time to anticipate the real fun beginning as you wait for your call to connect. AOL tacitly admits that their network is inadequate by inviting you to select from among two dial-up numbers when you install the software. The first is your preferred number (in my case the only 28.8K baud node in Phoenix) and the second number is the one the AOL client software will attempt to dial when the first number turns out to be busy. If you gather from this admission that AOL management knows that your first-choice number will always be busy, you are correct. If you surmise from this that your second-choice number will not be busy, you are incorrect. The lines are all busy. The lines are always busy. In cities where no one has a phone, the AOL nodes are perpetually busied out. And where any demon dialer can hit a busy line 20 times in 60 seconds, the AOL client goes at things at a more sedate pace, perhaps four failures a minute. The pinpoint-precision target marketers might play this up as a feature, since, uniquely among computer networks, AOL encourages the reading of books...

But eventually you do connect, and then do the scales fall from your eyes. For America Online is beautiful. Beautiful backgrounds. Beautiful interfaces peppered with beautiful little picture buttons. It's like shopping at the Trump Tower, and everything that is not smoky marble is gleaming brass, and everything else is hand-rubbed cherrywood. AOL strives to look like a magazine, and it succeeds.

A magazine with very sticky pages, alas. For everything is a picture, even many of the words are pictures. And while every picture tells a story, every story takes a while to tell. Immediately after doing anything on AOL, you are presented with another opportunity to read your book as image after image is downloaded to your hard disk. Many of these graphic files will be reused, but many others will not; they're as topical and as temporary as the siege-of-the-week graphics on CNN. Not only do you get to watch and wait as they are downloaded to your system, you have the added pleasure of knowing that they will be out there soaking up space on your hard disk forever.

But Web surfers know what to do about that, right? Just turn off the graphics, right? Wrong. You can't turn off the graphics, and, if you could, you wouldn't be able to do anything. A Web page with an image map looks very like the AOL interface, with this crucial difference: every switch on the image map will be repeated as text below the picture. You can link through the picture, or, if you like, you can turn off the pictures utterly and link through the text switches. The Web without graphics looks more like the Price Club than the Trump Tower. But it's fast...

By contrast, AOL is slow but pretty. That would make it the ideal prom date, I suppose, but we all know you can only go to the prom once. After the prom and after the hangover, you have to get on with your life, and America Online doesn't seem to me to be the ideal place to effect the life of the mind. For example, the very first time I succeeded in logging on, a pleasantly semi-drogynous voice said, "You've got mail!" Absurd, of course, since I'd only just picked my user name. But the mail was from the President of AOL, with a follow-up note from the Vice-President in Charge of Hand-Holding. It's inconceivable to me that there are people stupid enough to believe that two six-figure executrons hang out in the office at 10:30 at night waiting for new users to call in, so they can say, "Howdy!" But what's worse is that American Online is so cynical as to believe that there are people that stupid, or, worse, that there are people who would find it heart-warming to receive a bit of automated robotic sincerity even though they know it's bullshit. The executives of my internet server have never bothered to send me a personalized greeting. They waste all their time making sure there are enough facilities to meet peak demand...

But don't get the idea that AOL execs spend all their time glad-handing and hand-holding. Some of their valuable managerial expertise is devoted to betraying their own clientele to the FBI. AOL is so frustratingly slow that I can't imagine that anyone ever succeeded in downloading anything except by accident, but if anyone actually did get pornography off of AOL, they couldn't have gotten much of it. Surely there is much more in the alt.binaries newsgroups, and, of course, there's much more than that down at the peep academy. America Online management does a poor job of providing the product they're selling, but they are very effective at pretending to kiss their customers' backsides while stabbing them in the back. An old-fashioned bartender might give you the boot for getting out of line, but the modern, corporate-good-citizen bartender delivers you to the Inquisitor state and calls it a PR coup.

(But we can have the last laugh: surely the email the FBI confiscated with the help of AOL management consisted of 67 megabytes of people beefing that you can't get a connection into AOL, and, when you finally do, you can't get anything done. I like to think of some pimply GS-7 poring over misspelled gripe-mail looking for clues.)

But as ye sow, so shall ye reap: American Online is crawling with users, so even if I think they're doing nothing right, others must disagree. I've heard a lot of snotty remarks about AOL users in Usenet and in internet mail, but I confess I haven't paid too much attention to them. The only time I see them is in Usenet, of course, and I've often wondered who would volunteer to spend three dollars an hour to read "Tommy Taylor Wets The Bed!" threads. I can think of two possible explanations. First, as slow and as poorly interfaced as Usenet newsgroups are, they are nonetheless fast and easy-to-use by comparison to AOL discussion rooms. And second, Usenet is a way for AOL users to have some access to the internet while they wait for a Web browser that actually works.

(And don't get me started! Actually getting the AOL Web browser to launch was a huge chore. Once it did, it outdid even the normal pretty but slow AOL interface: it was ugly but glacial. I'd like to tell you how Web pages look in the AOL browser, but in a half-hour's time, I never once succeeded in connecting to a single page. My own page is completely inaccessible, since the browser converts a tilde ("~") to "%7E", which is a tilde in encoded hexadecimal. The tilde is a seven-bit character (that means it's "A-OK" if you like the AOL installer), so I have no idea why it's encoded. At the top of the browser's window is a text editing field, and one would expect that this would be the place into which you would type or paste URLs ("Web sites"). That expectation would lead you to frustration. To enter a URL, you have to use an "Open URL" dialog box, and the text editing field in the browser window is evidently just a space to show you the URL to which you are currently failing to connect.)

And, I expect obviously, I find that to some extent I share in the pandemic prejudice against America Online users. I don't have enough experience with them to have any particular feeling for them as class of computer users, and yet I can't help but wonder why anyone would pay so much for so little, when a TCP/IP internet account offers much more for much less. I cringe when I see an AOL address in print, because, where the author thinks he's showing off his technical savvy, the technically savvy know he's a parvenu: "Boyce Culpepper is a freelance computer writer who lives under the I-10 overpass. He speaks conversational Spanish and graduated cum laude from the Arthur Murray Academy of Dance. He can be reached at BlowHard@AOL.com." This does not inspire confidence. Even users of CompuServe, the other white meat, demonstrate mastery of nine-digit strings of meaningless numbers, comparatively speaking an intellectual feat.

Having heard about it all these years, and having seen it at last, I am left with the impression that America Online is a kiddie pool situated beside the great, wide oceans of information. And that is fine with me. The kiddie pool is always jammed, but everyone in it seems always to be having a great time. If the kiddies shriek at an ear-splitting volume, at least they're doing it over there, where they can't hurt themselves, and where they can annoy only each other. It wouldn't be a pleasant thing if they got out in the deep before they're ready, but we all know that the sharks clean up after the undertow. The internet isn't always pretty. But it's fast...

Greg Swann cannot be reached at GregSwann@AOL.com.

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