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Why AOL is not the way to get onto the Internet
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Why AOL is not the way to get onto the Internet
 

Bit Player for March 16, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

I got a flood of e-mail when I wrote about America Online's failings last month. I counted more than 200 letters just about AOL.

Many letter-writers asked for an explanation. They wanted to know how access to the Internet through AOL differed from access through a normal Internet provider. AOL users face two liabilities—a bottleneck in access speed because they are funneled through a separate connection (AOL's server), and a restriction on what they can do. This occurs because the AOL server is just plain in the way. (I'm leaving the technical stuff out.)

But other letter-writers asked why anyone would want to sail out alone on the Internet when AOL offers so much all on its own. Many even asserted that AOL offers services you can't find on the Net.

So let's sort this out. The first point can't be argued. If you like AOL and like what it offers, stick with it. AOL is very easy to get around in, and the latest version of its software is outstanding. Don't get me wrong: I'm telling you that if you like hotdogs, don't let someone try to sell you hamburger. I'm not saying hotdogs are good or bad.

The second point intrigues me. To assert that AOL has more services, or has unique services that cannot be found on the Internet's 31 million Web pages and 476,000 separate servers, is a sign that America Online has become a synonym for the entire experience of being online.

Reducing all online experiences to what AOL offers is silly, of course, and we don't need to attack it here. But I can assure all non-AOL users that many subscribers to America Online do, in fact, believe that AOL offers services that can't be found on the Web.

To be blunt, I'll point out that this attitude is myopic. I'll take the two best examples.

I've received letters from AOL users who rave about the online newspapers and magazines on AOL. There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of online newspapers and magazines on the Web. There are hundreds of guides to these publications. Some of them, such as The New York Times, require subscriptions. Most are completely free.

And I get letters extolling the stock monitoring and financial help on AOL. What these users don't see is the mountain of financial data—help, quick quotes that scroll across your screen, tips and much more—out there waiting to be picked up on the Web. Everything imaginable is there—along with a lot of unimaginable services, too.

So no one misunderstands this, let me explain the basic problem with AOL.

It's a closed system.

That was quick and easy, wasn't it?

A closed system has no chance in the era of the World Wide Web. No matter how hard AOL tries, no matter how much it spends on extra phone lines, no matter how many services it adds, one thing should be clear to AOL and to its subscribers: It can't compete with the World Wide Web.

So, if you're satisfied with what you find on AOL, and like its e-mail system, and don't mind the delays and sluggishness at prime time, stick with it. It's easy to use and has a lot to offer.

Otherwise, get the genuine article—a direct connection to the Net through an Internet provider. It won't cost any more, and you'll be able to do all the things you've read about and heard about.


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