AOLfree: You’ve Got Problems

David Strom writes – I haven’t run AOL software since about the time in the late 1990s when Marshall Rose and I were writing our book on Internet Messaging together. We wanted to call the book “You’ve Got Mail” but that is a story for another day. So when AOL announced last week that they were migrating to a free service for those of us that didn’t need their
dialup connections any more (dialup? Who uses dialup?) I had to try it out.
Boy, did I enter the wayback machine, Mr. Peabody. Before I knew what
was going on, my hard disk had filled up with AOL bloatware. I count
the following programs now installed care of Time Warner:
AOL Coach, AOL Connection Services, AOL Deskbar, AOL Spyware
Protector, AOL IE Toolbar, AOL You’ve Got Pictures screensaver, Real’s
Player, QuickTime, and AOL Computer Check Up. Not to mention the AOL
Uninstaller, which only uninstalls one of the above programs. As my
friend Barry Gerber would say, who designed this crap?
The AOLfree version faithfully replicates the AOL paid experience: you
have AOL IM, a browser to AOL’s portal (when was the last time you
needed to check that page?), and of course, AOL email (if you can find
a series of characters and numbers that no one else has already
grabbed). But why would anyone want to do this? The days of a “walled
garden” — as AOL once called its portal — are long over, and most
people use whatever email and browser they want these days.
However, there are a couple of things that it doesn’t do, things that
parents should know. One of the most useful things of a real AOL
account was the ability to set children’s access to content and how
they would use their IM and email accounts. While most teens these
days know more than parents and how to get around these blocks, the
pre-teen set can benefit from these controls. The AOLfree universe is
completely free of parental controls.
But if you are still using AOL and don’t have youngsters around, you
want to get off the AOL bus now. This is why their phone lines are
being clogged with users who want out of their monthly AOL tax on
their Internet access. BTW, the number to call is 1-888-265-8008 and
operators are standing by 24/7. I will save you the trouble of looking
it up on, which isn’t the easiest thing to find. And don’t get
me started on how much of a maze AOLhelp online is. There are so many
blind alleys on their Web site that any noob trying to figure this out
isn’t going to get very far. Clearly, they are working on their site.
(When I went under AOLhelp, account questions, price plans AOL offers;
I got “We’re sorry, currently there are no available documents for
this section.” Oops.)
Yes, there are some semi-useful tools, such as AOL Computer Check Up,
which scans and attempts to fix your hard disk for things that are
wrong with it, but there are better programs around for free,
including from my friend Dave Methvin. And there is its
Spyware blocker, but after installing all these other AOL thingies I
am not sure that I can find the blocker among all my desktop clutter
anymore. And why, pray tell, do I need both Real and QuickTime players
on my machine? Certainly, one would be enough to play all that video
content that AOL now is streaming at me, including the intro video
with the cute blonde showing me what the software does, which is
almost worth the entire hassle of installing and uninstalling AOLfree.
No, this is one piece of freeware that you get exactly what you pay
for: a mish-mash of second-rate software, all so that you can have a
“vanity” AOL email address to indicate to the rest of the world that
you continue to be a clueless noob. Glenn Fleishman writes equally
harsh language in this week’s newsletter:
AOL’s software still stinks. AOL’s email filtering is highly erratic.
Any of us who run mailing lists are familiar with suddenly having all
of our double opt-in, fully approved AOL users bounce our email for
some obscure reason that’s impossible to address directly with AOL.
AOLfree is just another in piece of their software that continues to
annoy me. I wrote a short review of their latest AIM Pro IM client for
Computerworld that you can read here.
When I wrote that piece I got a few emails from people within AOL that
wanted to talk to me. They didn’t provide phone numbers, and I assumed
they were product managers so I emailed them back, saying I welcome a
dialog. Never heard another peep out of them. Perhaps they didn’t
receive my message — but this is just another indication of how hard
it is to deal with the company. I think we can say that the merger
with Time Warner has been successful at reverse cherry-picking the
aspects of two dysfunctional corporate cultures and creating a
worst-of-breed new media company.
AOL has done a terrific job of getting noobs on the Net, and providing
an IM service for teens that is now being used by many businesses. But
their software efforts suffer from coming from a large corporation
that has lost its will to be an innovator. There isn’t any reason to
use AOLfree. If you still have as your domain, it is time to
consider other alternatives, like Google, Earthlink, and hundreds of
other places that will do a better job.