AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): New Year of Trouble

David Cassel (
Wed, 7 Jan 1998 01:37:17 -0800 (PST)

		   N e w   Y e a r   o f   T r o u b l e


Problems keeps coming for AOL.  Most users can no longer summon a Guide --
but it's worse than that.  Users attempting to report a trouble-maker find
their software crashes if they're using version 2.5 of AOL's Windows
software.  "Going to Keyword NOTIFY AOL causes a general protection
fault," a typical subscriber complained.  Accessing the "report a
violation" slot on keyword GUIDEPAGER and Keyword TOS also crashes the
software, according to an on-line staffer.  "It's going to be like Mardi
Gras here, on the worst side of town."

Affected subscribers have been cut off from the ability to report
trouble-makers for nearly three weeks -- since December 19.  "I've
reported it at least once a day to a Guide on duty," one on-line staffer
groused.  "Got a feeling no one cares?"  (The crashes happen every time
the feature is accessed.  "It pauses for a few seconds," a subscriber told
AOL Watch, "and the General Protection Fault screen comes up." )

AOL's size has already made the number of complaints unmanageable, AOL
advised staffers, so they've established a new policy:  only users in a
children's area can immediately summon a guide.  
( )  What about members who use the
children's Guide pager for problems in others areas?  "A canned response
letter has been developed..." AOL added -- though the letter only refers
members to keyword Notify.  And more reductions are coming -- "as AOL
changes and grows," AOL hopes to be less involved in responses, relying on
"member empowerment,"  the memo continues.  (Guides will not be phased out
-- per se -- but "the job of Guides will focus more on education and a
little less on Terms of Service issues.") 

But is that wise?  Monday, security experts told the Wall Street Journal
that AOL's users "have become easy pickings for vandals" armed with
malicious programs.  The paper cites AOL statements that more than 370,000
fake accounts were created in the summer of 1996, and concludes there's an
underground sub-culture.  ("Hackers post proggies around the Internet and
trade them like baseball cards.")  While other services have "problem
users" too, the Journal's reporter notes "more hackers have been targeting
AOL, drawn by its sheer size, as well as its members' reputation as Net
novices" (adding that hackers have even gained access to Steve Case's
account!)  Over 19 paragraphs describe their various tactics -- including
password and credit-card "phishers", instant-message and "invite" bombs
(which freeze the victim's screen), floods of e-mail, and Trojan horses. 
But even users of the newest version of AOL's software say it doesn't
prevent the instant message bombs, C|Net's Janet Kornblum reports.  
(,4,17810,00.html ) Users of the software
also complain that it crashes their system and hogs memory, C|Net
continues.  ("Staff HATES the program," an on-line staffer confided to AOL
Watch.  "It is *very* unstable...") 

But there's another problem with the software.  "It's really really really
late."  The hype started over a year ago, an AOL staffer remembered, when
the original release date was given as March, 1997.  It's at least 9
months overdue -- so last Tuesday, AOL gave 50,000 users a "public
preview".  It's essentially a beta-test in which eager users downloading
the software act as guinea pigs--and it's one of AOL's most controversial
practices.  "It's not so bad, you know -- to put out a buggy beta
browser," columnist Robert Seidman wrote in 1995.  "Heck, Netscape put out
a buggy release browser!  But it's not quite as buggy as the browser
currently available via keyword: AOL PREVIEW for subscribers using the
Windows client...." ( 

A former AOL CyberJockey echoed his comments.  "AOL didn't make it
wonderfully clear (even to remote staffers) that the initial release of
their browser was indeed a beta version," a 1995 newsgroup post notes. 
"AOL, meanwhile, was charging its users the going rate for 'previewing'
(and helping AOL by locating the bugs in) said Browser."
( )

The beta-test style "public preview" of AOL's 4.0 software follows a
similar pattern.  "4.0 Staff will be monitoring the upgrade boards and any
tech calls before releasing further previews," AOL advised their Community
Leaders...  When will the final version be released?  "They aren't even
guessing anymore," one staffer joked.  Remembering earlier release dates,
the staffer composed a table of AOL's shifting promises. 

		Original:  3/97
		Revised:  6/97
		Revised:  "Summer" 97
		Revised:  Fall 97
		Revised:  Christmas 97
		Revised:  To be announced.

Ironically, AOL made an effort not to create disappointing expectations. 
"Technology companies are notorious for 'Vaporware'," AOL's columnist "The
AOL Insider" wrote -- over a year ago.  "They promise a cool new product
or piece of software and then they never deliver."  The December 11, 1996
column by "Meg" states that "AOL tries not to introduce Vaporware, so
they'd only let me talk about the stuff they know for SURE will happen..." 

Significantly, she didn't say when.  ("No one annoys me more than Meg," a
disgruntled staffer told AOL Watch.)  In the 13 months since Meg's column
was written, beta versions of the software have leaked to hacker web pages
, and received negative reviews
from columnists ( 
Thousands of AOL users also received rumors that it contained a cookie
that would snoop through their hard drives 
( )  -- and Tuesday the unfounded
rumor re-surfaced (ironically, on a mailing list for the Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility.) 

It's distrust of AOL that provokes the underground network of rumors, both
founded and unfounded -- but with AOL's dark side, it's not possible to be
cynical enough.  The January issue of Yahoo! Internet Life re-visits the
story of a woman who met her husband on America Online.  Four months into
her marriage, she discovered the man she'd married was, in fact, a woman. 
( )  The magazine's year-end review
reports that a Virginia court awarded the unfortunate bride $264,000
(presumably for misrepresentation.) 

Steve Case's January Community Update nonetheless calls community "the
real heart and soul of this new interactive medium."  But others think AOL
just craves money.  "We are now offering Saturday evening CyberVows
Ceremonies at a fee," reads the announcement at keyword CyberVows.  "The
cost of these ceremonies will be $19.95.  For $29.95, the couple will also
receive 2 printed copies of their CyberVows certificate, suitable for
framing..."  "I am very disappointed," one user told AOL Watch, "since my
husband and I met on-line and we were hoping to do the CyberVows ceremony
as a way to celebrate our anniversary with our on-line friends."  The
virtual chapel's rent covers online-only ceremonies (which aren't legally
binding) in which users type in satirical vows ("For better modem
connections, for infinite busy signals...through hard drive problems and
in health...till TOS do us part") -- or slightly more serious vows.  ("I
love no other online but you...") 

Make-believe weddings aren't the only casualty of AOL's new policies. 
"We regret to inform you that as of January 1, 1998, the New York Times
Sunday classified ads will no longer be available on The New York Times on
America Online," an announcement at keyword "NYT Classifieds" advises
users.  The announcement -- from Robert Larson, editor of the New York
Times on AOL -- also told users who to blame.  "This decision has been
made by America Online."  No other explanation was given -- though the
move coincides with a recent agreement AOL struck with "Classified
Ventures"  ( )  Users
attempting to access keyword "Dow Jones" also receive bad news -- a black
pop-up window stating that the keyword is no longer available. 
( ) -- followed by text pointing users
to the remaining content at AOL's business news center. 

AOL's desperate need for profits may be behind all these moves.  "AOL has
adopted a new strategy of paying less money to publishers from your
monthly subscription," the editor of AOL's Dow Jones area wrote in
October, "and instead requiring publishers to generate most of their
revenue from the sale of advertising and in the sale of products directly
to you."  ( )  This policy forced
the news service to leave.  "Given the significant editorial resources
required to produce Dow Jones Business Center each day, this strategy
makes it impossible for us to continue the area after Dec. 31, 1997."  

But AOL might argue there was no choice.  To stave off competition from
the internet, AOL slashed their prices last year to match the standard
unlimited access fees of internet service providers.  However, AOL failed
to show any profits for the next six months -- and now they're scrambling
to generate "alternate revenue streams" to offset the lost cash-flow.

Users soon found mandatory ads on their mailboxes and on their chat
rooms--and some users report AOL is testing ads on member profiles.  It
wouldn't be the first time AOL has made unpopular changes to their users'
information.  "AOL took it upon itself to add everyone's country of origin
to profiles," one staffer told AOL Watch.  "People had a FIT...The
countries were removed within hours, never to appear again."  (Now AOL has
even installed ads on the "status" windows which appear while users
download files.) 

The next target may be the "Instant Messenger" windows AOL bundled into
Netscape's browser.  A Jupiter Communications analyst told Wired News that
"you cannot understate the potential for ad revenue on these little
instant messaging windows when you're sending around hundreds of millions
of messages per day." (
(But media pundits already see a dark potential in the software.  "Using
the Instant Messenger, you can keep track of people other than AOL
members," Boardwatch columnist Wallace Wang observed, "which could be
perfect for harassing people you don't like or stalking people you really
do like.")  "Ads at sign-on, mail screens, downloading screens, profiles,
chat rooms,"  one subscriber moaned.  "WHEN WILL IT STOP?!?"  Users are
even forced to look at ads immediately after entering AOL's "Celebrity
Voice" contest ( ), though AOL
insisted weakly to the Los Angeles Times that the contest was not an
advertising strategy to highlight companies contributing prizes.  
( ) 

The only ads AOL users can avoid are the pop-up ads appearing when users
sign on.  They can be de-activated at keyword Marketing Preferences -- and
even AOL's own content partners are rushing to block them.  ("I tell all
the members of my team on AOL about it,"  says Ira Wing, Community Manager
for AOL's "PlanetOut".  Wing says it helps his team of 80 "reduce the
number of irritating layers between them and AOL.  It's been quite
successful.") Even then, the ads don't always work the way AOL planned.  
( )  Tuesday, trying to log on, AOL
Watch received a buggy ad which prevented reaching AOL's main
screen.  (Proceeding required hitting the return key dozens of times
to clear warning messages from AOL's software about the error.)  And AOL
pop-up ads -- reading "If you've ever had a crash or Windows problem, you
need First Aid!" -- didn't ring true for other subscribers.  "AOL told me
that First Aid 95/97/98 is NOT configured to work with AOL," went a
typical comment to AOL Watch, "and that it will actually lock your system

Perhaps Steve Case's update about "community" was remembering easier times
before AOL became strapped for cash.  Case dated Tuesday's update "January
6, 1997."  (By February of 1997, a lawsuit had accused Steve Case and 17
other AOL executives of insider trading, saying AOL's accounting practices
had artificially inflated the value of their stock.  The suit noted that
Steve Case sold 575,000 shares -- which it calculated to be 76% of his
holdings -- shortly before AOL changed their accounting methods to include
hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing costs. 
[ ] )  Now the Washington Post
reports that in early December, Case sold another 100,000 shares. 

But AOL's cash worries apparently aren't over.  Even AOL's 4.0 area is
accompanied by a a "4.0 store" that lets users upgrade their hardware --
while AOL receives a commission off every sale.  Still, money-grabbing
tactics could be worse.  AOL mistakenly withdrew enough money to pay for
one year of service from one subscriber's checking account.  "I must have
bounced five checks that month," the subscriber complained, "costing me
$30.00 a bounce."  Several other users have reported similar experiences. 
( )

Will AOL find legitimate streams of revenue -- enough to create
profitability, and repair all their bugs?  "This could be the year when
AOL either matures into the mother-of-all-Internet services that it claims
to be," the Washington Post observes, "or falls victim to all the
shortcomings catalogued by its critics."

Time will tell.


AOL's slow response to complaints is even affecting users trying to
cancel their service.  One subscriber couldn't find AOL's on-line
cancellation area (which has been disabled by AOL anyways) -- so "I let
two of my friends swear and offend the chat rooms users."

Unfortunately, that didn't work.  After an hour and a half, "they got
bored and sent a story involving two guys and a nine year old to" 

But it was no use.  "I'm still on AOhelL," they complained.  "Help!"

  David Cassel 
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