AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Halloween Evil

David Cassel (
Fri, 31 Oct 1997 13:00:53 -0800 (PST)

		       H a l l o w e e n   E v i l


AOL went down nationwide two days before Halloween. 

Fear struck in Detroit.  "My sister asked me if  'The system is
temporarily unavailable, please try again in 15 minutes, thanks for
calling'  meant that  'those losers'  are down again." 

Her concerns were well-founded.  "I remember from a year ago what that
message meant..."  AOL had delivered the same warning, and as the system
remained off-line for 18 hours, the "try again" time slowly increased. 
Thirty minutes, sixty minutes, ninety minutes...  Finally, it began
advising users to try again "later." ( 

Wednesday a similar pattern occurred.  AOL's exit screen acknowledged that
"The system is temporarily unavailable.  Please try again in 15 minutes." 
Fifteen minutes later, nothing.  Ninety minutes later -- nothing... 

Then, AOL deliberately blocked many users from logging in, according to
two interviews with AOL spokespeople.

It wasn't until 7 p.m. EST -- four and a half hours later -- that all
users could sign-on, Ziff-Davis News reports. 
( )  "But while
users could log in," the Associated Press noted, "the e-mail system was
not working at 5:30 p.m. and the network responded at a glacial pace."

"We tried to bring the e-mail system back up at that time," an AOL
spokesperson told Reuters, "but it didn't happen."

"Are you guys going to have mail back soon?" one subscriber asked AOL's
mail systems director. 

"I sure hope so," he replied. 

Instead, 14 hours after the outage began, many users still couldn't send
e-mail. Interactive Week reported this problem was corrected by 5 a.m
Thursday morning ( ) -- 18
hours later.  Coincidentally, that was the length of AOL's first
nationwide black-out in 1996. 

During Wednesday's 18-hour e-mail brown-out, AOL's software nonetheless
advised users "Please try again in a few minutes." 
( )  "Those few minutes have been
nine hours of no e-mail access so far..." one subscriber complained. 

This created more mail problems.  One test message sent to AOL Thursday
morning wasn't delivered until 13 hours later.  But AOL had been
experiencing mail snafus even before the nationwide outage.  "Many of you
either didn't receive our Evening Bulletin from yesterday," the Dow Jones
News Service told subscribers Tuesday "or experienced a substantial
delay."  They'd soon discovered the culprit.  "America Online reported
some difficulties in its e-mail system..."  Along with heavy traffic on
the internet, it had delayed the e-mail bulletin's delivery.  Two days
later, another disclaimer was in order.  "As you may be aware, America
Online experienced severe technical problems yesterday, including
suspension of e-mail for an extended time period. That included the time
when the Evening Bulletin is normally distributed, preventing its
publication yesterday. We apologize for this inconvenience."

In fact, a variety of problems plagued AOL's system even before the
nationwide outage, according to AOL's internal system status report. 

   11:31-12:00 -- Overflow chat rooms showing as invalid rooms when 
			trying to enter. 

   9:30 - 9:45 -- All WorldPlay games are currently down. 

   6:07 - 7:59 -- Chat was unavailable due to system status. 

   4:50 - 7:59 -- Members experienced hanging at hour glass when
			entering People Connection. 

   4:30        -- 1% of mail attachments cannot be forwarded to the
			internet. No estimated time of repair. 

   4:00 - 6:50 -- 25% of newsgroups are unreadable for 3 hours. All of
			newsgroups will be unavailable for the last ten minutes

   4:00 - 6:00 -- 3% of mail reads were unavailable. 

   4:00 - 8:14 -- 4% of members had problems accessing there mail box. 

Some users even disagreed with AOL's published estimates of the outage's
length.  "Only two hours?" one skeptical subscriber complained.  "In what?
Dog hours?" 

Wednesday afternoon AOL features winked in and out of service as users
returned on-line.  "It appeared that they could start reading
existing mail at about 5 p.m. PT,"  C|Net reported -- but at 10:46, they
couldn't. (,4,15804,00.html )  And as
AOL's welcome screen announced "People are talking" to promote AOL's
chatrooms, AOL's software returned the message "We're sorry, Chat is

"AOL Buckles Under Strain" read the Associated Press headline. 
( )  But
Ziff-Davis News found AOL unrepentant.  "This stuff happens," AOL's
spokeswoman Tricia Primrose told the news network.  "When you have a
network that supports a half a million people at any given time, you're
going to have problems along the way." 
( )  Primrose's
inadvertent argument for the reliability of smaller local service
providers also offered a dubious defense of AOL -- that their network is
down "less than 1 percent of the time." 

One percent of the time would represent more than 90 minutes every week. 

In fact, nationwide outages are one of AOL's ongoing expectations.  "I
would like to be able to tell you that this sort of thing will never
happen again," Steve Case wrote in 1996, "but frankly, I can't make that
commitment."  He was right.  Reuters added that "this year, the company
has suffered from some major disruptions including a total system blackout
on February 5 and an e-mail specific disruption on June 20. "
( )  "Company
officials called the breakdown the worst at AOL since an 19-hour blackout
in August 1996 forced it to credit subscribers for a day," the San
Francisco Chronicle reported.  ( ) 
"AOL subscribers who tried to log-on to the system were greeted with the
log-off screen and the automated 'goodbye' voice for nearly two hours. " 
One subscriber had phoned the paper after trying unsuccessfully to log on
over 100 times.  "It's like trying to open your mailbox at home and
finding it's been glued shut." Predictably, he was also unable to reach
any AOL technical support staff.  "The CompuServe people are going to
LOVE this..." one sarcastic subscriber quipped. 

But maybe not.  According to a recent study, 23% of CompuServe's
subscribers have cancelled their subscriptions in the last three months --
apparently reacting to the news that AOL would be soon be managing their
service. ( )  After
Wednesday's outage, several AOL subscribers told AOL Watch they'd also be
cancelling their accounts.  With classic bad timing, Thursday's exit
screen asked users if they'd now like to sign-up for one year in
advance -- and users signing off Wednesday afternoon received an
insult-to-injury message. 

"Satisfaction and security guaranteed," it read "when you shop at AOL..." 

"AOL Goes Black," read the headline on the Ziff-Davis News Network. 
"Online service outage leaves millions without service." 
( )  San Jose's
Mercury News added that the outage occurred during peak hours.
( )  But one technology
enthusiast sees a willful neglect of AOL's performance problems from the
press.  "If you really wanted to investigate the AOL outage, you might ask
the AOL rep why AOL's network is located entirely in a single city in
Northern Virginia, instead of being distributed across the entire country
like CompuServe and nationwide ISPs such as WorldNet. 

"Distributed networks are less likely to go down completely." 

CompuServe and Prodigy don't have nationwide outages because they don't
concentrate all their machines in a single location.  AOL's Virginia
bottleneck is an all-or-nothing approach -- and when there's a problem in
Virginia, there's a problem everywhere. 

It's not the first time reporters have made mistakes about AOL's network. 
One Business Week reporter extrapolated a coming internet capacity crunch
from AOL's 18-hour outage in 1996.  When confronted in an AOL on-line
chat, the reporter defended his article by arguing AOL's structure
wouldn't invalidate the comparison if AOL's network had "sufficient

"AOL doesn't have 'sufficient redundancy'," the exacerbated questioner
retorted.  "Otherwise the system wouldn't have gone offline for 19 hours!" 
( )

"That comment is obviously on the mark...." the humbled reporter replied. 

AOL's nationwide outage also coincided with the unveiling of new features
to block unsolicited commercial e-mail -- but "to filter e-mail
effectively," one poster noted in, "it does help if one can
actually receive it in the first place."  AOL's press release also said
they'd give users spam-fighting suggestions regarding "internet junk
e-mail"-- and suggested an ominous agenda.  One of the features is "Block
all mail from the internet."  AOL's press release also specifies that
users can block specific online services, "like Prodigy(TM) and
CompuServe(TM), among others" -- but blocking mail from all AOL members is
not an option. ( )  Even
then, users shouldn't expect too many results.  "The online service will
remain a prime target of junk e-mailers," PC World reports, "in part
because it's relatively easy to compile mailing lists that target AOL
members."  They'd discovered several software packages that boast the
ability to harvest AOL screen names from message boards and member
directories. "Spokesperson Tricia Primrose says AOL is aware of tools like
AOL Harvester," the reporter added, "but hasn't come up with a way yet to
defeat them." ( 

AOL's own 4.0 software may be just as controversial.  "[P]erhaps most
important to AOL's bottom line, it will continue to put the emphasis on
AOL's business partners," reports C|Net, "and will be chock full of
advertising and opportunities to buy, buy, buy." 
(,4,15612,00.html )  One beta-tester also
reports concerns that it won't run on computers using AMD or Cyrix chips
-- just Intel chips -- and other sources report a beta- program in
disarray. ( )  Some users even
worry that forced downloads of AOL's "RipTide" enhancements may cause
glitches on their computers.

As AOL was unveiling their new channels, Wednesday's outages got things
off to a bad start in their chat rooms.  "I CAN'T EVEN SEND MAIL RIGHT
NOW!!!" one subscriber complained. "BIG IMPROVEMENT!" 

Another subscriber blamed the features for the system's problems.  "What
the hell is up with this new AOL?" they demanded. 

"I hate this!!" another subscriber added.  "I WANT MY OLD AOL!!" 

	"me too" 
	"ME TOO!!!!" 
	"DAMN AOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" 

Meanwhile, ill-wishers trolled the system.  "When AOL's mail system was
down, nobody could report anyone for TOS violations," one "looter" noted. 
Seizing the opportunity, they'd sent Instant Messages identifying themselves
as the America Online Technical Support Department, stating that "Due to
an error in your account you are unable to send mail.  This is caused
because we are unable to receive your online password..."  Then the
scammer went for the pay-off.  "Please hit 'reply'," they'd told
subscribers, "and type in your current online password, and your ability
to send mail will be restored." 

But some fear this activity could become a regular feature of AOL.  "We
are going to have the regular GuidePager turned off between the hours of 3
p.m. - midnight until November 10," one internal memo states.  The memo
gives the rationale as a need to "make AOL a safer place for Kids" -- but
at least one Guide feels this is just a cover. "Guide Pages, which come in
from all other areas of chat online, far outweigh kids-area pages.  And 3
p.m. - 12 a.m. are the heaviest usage hours."

They see only one plausible explanation--"a test of whether Guides not
responding to pagers is a problem or not."  "Members haven't figured it
out yet,"  another Guide notes, "as mail, Notify, Guide Pager and all
other mail functions were down for about 13-15 hours Wednesday..." 

They fear AOL is gradually phasing out member's ability to summon Guides. 

AOL already discourages users from relying on Guides.  Attempting to page
a Guide returns a discouraging disclaimer stating "Guide Assistance is
intended for serious cases of offensive behavior in public chat rooms... 
Please make an effort to manage your own chat experience..."  One user
reports that recently even the TOSGeneral e-mail address stopped accepting
e-mailed complaints.  Another web page reports AOL's overwhelmed TOS staff
now answers questions with cut-and-pasted form letters, seemingly at
random ( ) -- and that in some
cases, no action is taken at all. 

The reduced GuidePager policy appears to be in effect. Thursday two users
"wilding"  chat rooms were reported to the GuidePager -- but an hour
later, both were still on-line.  One AOL critic suggests another possible
reason for transferring Guides to kid's-area pages.  Fox News recently
contacted the webmaster of "Inside AOL" about an expose on AOL safety. A
behind-the-scenes cover-up before the news crews arrive could explain the
new policy.  His theory draws support from the line of the memo which
states "we've been asked to make the KidsPager the priority over the next
couple of weeks." 

AOL's CEO may get an earful Friday.  "If you're a shareholder or an AOL
member and wonder why Case got a raise while you still can't get a
connection after multiple tries, ask him at AOL's annual meeting on
Halloween in Chantilly, Va," urges Information Week. 
( )  Even 
non-shareholders have taken their jabs.  "On Halloween, I decided to
dress up as the most evil creature I could think of..." one webmaster

"Steve Case."

His treats are accompanied by AOL floppy disks -- though as a precaution,
he "ran a magnet over all of them before handing them out...." But some
take it even further.  The New York Times once suggested readers could
also "sandwich-board yourself between two giant squares with holes on top,
and make like one of those ubiquitous AOL disks..."  
( ) 

Halloween thoughts even came from another content partner who left AOL. 
The e-zine for "Kim Komando's Komputer Klinic" helps readers determine
what's truly scary.
  - Not Scary: answering the door to see a ghost, skeleton and a pirate.

  - Really Scary: answering the door to see your 16-year old daughter's
    blind date, a married 47-year old accountant she met on an America
    Online chat room.

One user apparently went trick or treating in AOL's "Extreme Fans" area. 
Its banner ads designate the area's "RotoZone" feature "Where your fantasy
comes true."  Tuesday night, its headlines showed the fantasy of a user
named K1NG. 

 	"K1NG is traded to the American League." 

	"K1NG gets traded back to the national league." 

	"K1NG is inducted into the hall of fame."

( ) Two days earlier, K1NG attacked
AOL's PC Hardware area ( ) -- but as
Halloween approached, the hobgoblin was still wandering AOL.

Halloween seems to have found AOL.  In anticipation of more performance
problems, festive AOL users may want to re-visit PC World's AOL drinking
game, Log-on Lager Lotto.

"Take a drink for every failed attempt to log on to America Online..."

After Wednesday's outage, one subscriber offered the perfect Halloween
comparison for AOL.  ( )

"Trying to log on is like trick or treating in a bad neighborhood." 


Pre-Halloween evil jinxed AOL's ads.  In the midst of their nationwide
outage, the system's messages reflected the ongoing problems. 

"MIND GAMES," read AOL's welcome screen -- offering users a chance to
test their IQ, "or find out if you are an optimist or a pessimist."

Exit messages pointed users to AOL Live, where they could meet the author
of a book titled "A Lesson Before Dying."

And one ad for AOL's modem shop promised modems were tested by AOL's

"This makes me feel a whole lot better," one subscriber groused.

    David Cassel
    More Information * SPECIAL HALLOWEEN EDITION *


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