Fun_People Archive
9 Jan
uniquely among networks, AOL encourages the reading of books... (long

Date: Tue, 9 Jan 96 19:56:38 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
To: Fun_People
Subject: uniquely among networks, AOL encourages the reading of books... (long
but scathing)

Forwarded-by: (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: Cat <>

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

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" 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

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

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