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 AOL.com, 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 PCPitStop.com 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 Tidbits.com 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 AOL.com as your domain, it is time to consider other alternatives, like Google, Earthlink, and hundreds of other places that will do a better job.