By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
I've said many times that the best way to get onto the Internet is through a standard Internet connection. This means a connection through your phone line or by cable using an Internet Service Provider.
The worst way to get onto the Internet is through a commercial online service. By "commercial online service," I mean AOL and the few other surviving services that work the same way. Since AOL is so big and the others (MSN and CompuServe, mostly) are so small, I'll concentrate on AOL.
An Internet Service Provider has one main job, giving you a connection to the Net. An ISP gives you an entrance ramp to a highway. You stop at a tollbooth, pay your money and merge into the traffic. That's it.
AOL is a commercial service. Back before ISPs came along, before the Internet grew up, a commercial online service made sense. I was a charter member of AOL. I got easy e-mail, chat, downloads and lots of other things. I loved it.
That was a long time ago. I stayed on AOL for 10 years. The world changed, but AOL couldn't keep up with it.
Everything AOL did is now done over the Internet. I've said this before, many times. People write and call week after week to ask me whether "everything" includes chat or stock listings or instant messages or a dozen other things that AOL users seem to think are exclusive to AOL.
Listen up, AOL fans. Last time I checked, "everything" meant ALL THINGS. That's "all," as in "the whole shootin' match."
The amazing thing to me and to my broadcast and journalism partner Gene Wolf, who feels even more strongly about this than I do, is that this has to be said at all. Saying that everything you can do on AOL can be done on the Internet is upside down. It's like saying everything you can do on that dirt track behind Uncle Harry's barn can be done on the racetrack at Indianapolis. It's like comparing a bicycle to a Corvette. Yes, they both have wheels, and they both take you places, but one is much fancier and more powerful than the other.
So, yes, you can do all that stuff with a standard Internet connection. All of it. (And the two most widely used Internet chat programs, icq and AOL Instant Messenger, are both owned by AOL! And, yes, you can chat with an AOL user if you have a standard connection.)
But that's just the silly side of the issue. Arguing about "special" features of AOL is pointless. The real problems of AOL can be seen in three areas—AOL's speed, AOL's mail system and AOL's browser.
AOL is slow. If you can get through to AOL's phone lines (they're not as busy as they used to be, but they're still overburdened), you slog through AOL's computers along with millions of others who are on at the same time. For what reason? If it's just to get out onto the Internet, you're clearly better off getting directly onto the Net through a standard Internet connection.
AOL's mail is terribly outdated. Trying to send something by e-mail as an attachment can be a big hassle, and you can't send or receive more than one attachment at a time. If you're on AOL and actually get an attachment from someone who has a standard Internet connection, you probably won't be able to figure out what to do with the attached file. AOL's address book is poorly done, too.
AOL's browser these days is Internet Explorer. It's a great browser. But AOL turns a huge advantage of Internet Explorer into a big minus for AOL by changing the way Internet Explorer handles Web shortcuts. AOL's Favorite Places are dumb. They're not standard shortcuts the way Internet Explorer's Favorites are, and they can't be turned into Favorites or ordinary shortcuts. They're just a pain.
Finally, a standard Internet connection costs no more than an AOL subscription. If your AOL bill is based on time spent online, a standard ISP connection is actually a lot cheaper per hour.