AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Off-line Again!

David Cassel (
Tue, 24 Feb 1998 04:31:02 -0800 (PST)

		     O f f - l i n e   A g a i n  !


An electrical malfunction knocked AOL off-line Monday. 

"Please try again in 15 minutes," AOL's software told subscribers -- for
the next two and a half hours.  "I wonder if someone can sue them over the
definition of 15 minutes?" one subscriber asked AOL Watch. 

The outage came at a peak time -- 9:15 p.m. EST -- and it wasn't until
shortly before midnight that the service was restored.  "Maybe their
conception of time is just a tad slower than the rest of us," another AOL
Watch reader complained.  It took AOL an hour to restore power -- and
almost two hours later, an on-line announcement conceded that "Member
[sic] are not yet able to send or receive e-mail."  
( )  "We expect the e-mail system to
be functional within the next few hours,"  it concluded optimistically. 

Ironically, BoardWatch magazine had just published results of a nationwide
survey of ISPs, reporting that though AOL ranked in the bottom third of
the 90 services tested, "they were by no means the worst in the pile."

Despite that, Boardwatch's figures indicate one out of every eight calls
to AOL failed to connect (12.9%).  Unfortunately, AOL's service outage
comes as AOL attempts to justify a $2.00-per-month price increase.  "It's
paying caviar prices for day-old bread," one subscriber told Reuters
columnist Michelle Rafter.

Another subscriber had even harsher words for C|Net.  "America Online
isn't even worth two bucks per month...",4,19082,00.html 

In a late-night interview, AOL's spokesperson attempted to downplay the
outage for Reuters. "This is the first time something like this has
happened in well over a year," she claimed -- though just last month C|Net
reported that AOL had experienced a 40-minute outage.,4,17908,00.html

But AOL subscribers know the service also experiences unreported
mini-outages.  Last weekend several AOL Watch readers encountered serious
e-mail problems.  "For over 24 hours, I have received a 'Service
Unavailable' error from AOL when trying to send mail," an Earthlink
subscriber reported Monday, February 16.  "I haven't gotten any e-mail on
AOL since SATURDAY!" another subscriber complained Tuesday.  "I even sent
myself a test e-mail Sunday, and it never arrived." 

"Now what is that extra $2 per month for?" they asked rhetorically. 
"Given the level of service," another AOL Watch reader quipped, "a price
decrease would be more appropriate."  In fact, nearly 130,000 subscribers
came forward to claim refunds for a month of service over busy signals
last year.  ( ) 

Exacerbating their outrage:  service problems continue to occur regularly. 
In early November technology correspondent Simson Garfinkel observed that
"Many customers who use local ISPs to telephone AOL (using AOL's TCP/IP
connection option)  have been unable to get through."  
( )  The next week AOL
temporarily stopped delivering e-mail from the Microsoft Network and
FlexNet -- just as in the past, AOL had also stopped delivering mail from
other internet services, including FuseNet, CyberCom, Gorilla.Net, and,4,16907,00.html

This week subscribers encountered another unpublicized block, one
newsletter reports.  "It appears that AOL has taken the decision on all
its users behalf to block all your mailboxes from being able to receive
the daily Eureka newsletter..." editor Robin Nixon wrote Thursday.  
( )  Nixon told AOL Watch the
newsletter had 75,000 AOL subscribers.  "We are not totally sure that all
readers are affected," their announcement read, "but have determined that
tens of thousands of you are."  One angry Eureka subscriber e-mailed their
reaction to AOL Watch.  "I am dumping AOL in the next couple of weeks," he
wrote.  "They are too #@$&ing much!" 

Other subscribers complain about "scheduled" outages -- which
unfortunately occur near the middle of the day in England, preventing
subscribers from accessing their e-mail.  "One wonders why they don't come
clean BEFORE they turn off the e-mail system,"  a U.K.  subscriber
objected "and TELL the paying subscribers not to waste their time, and
THEIR AOL PAID FOR TIME, by trying to access their incoming emails." 

"It is a simple matter of AOL's service being inadequate," they concluded,
"and AOL treating its own customers -- you know, the people who pay their
wages -- with what amounts to contempt."  

Additional problems Sunday night prompted further anger.  "When is this
going to stop, the unannounced down time, the lies, and system

24 hours later, the outage hit. 

How can AOL justify a price hike?  Steve Case wrote the increase was to
cover AOL's cost for providing service.  But according to the Washington
Post, AOL's gross profit margins have only fallen from 37% to 35%.

Apparently AOL wants subscribers to make up the difference.  "Asked to
comment on the timing," CNN Financial News reports, "Keith Benjamin, a
technology analyst at Banc America Robertson Stephens, said it was made
'because Steve Case thought he could get away with it'."

Fury is building.  A Minnesota ISP has even created a web-site at
"" ( ), set up a toll-free number
( 1-888-Leave-AOL ), and guaranteed users their rates won't increase for
two years.  Four days after AOL's price increase was announced, Earthlink
told Wired News they were "besieged by tens of thousands of people"
responding to an offer titled "Get Out of AOL Free."

"With the service levels they've been delivering, the guys at AOL must be
out of their minds," Prodigy's CEO told C|Net.  ( 1-800-Prodigy ),4,19032,00.html

"AOL just raised the price of inferior service," Earthlink's CEO gloated
in a press release.  ( ) 
And the New York Attorney's General office seemed to agree.  "We encourage
customers to shop around,"  a spokesman remarked pointedly to the New York
Post.  ( ) 

Problems may amplify an ongoing exodus to local internet services. 
Ziff-Davis News cites Forrester Research reports that internet services
averaged a growth rate of 100 percent in 1997.

In fact, last week analysts told the New York Times AOL spends $77 for
each subscriber added -- adding that "dissatisfaction with the company is
reflected in myriad anti-AOL Web sites, mailing lists and several
class-action lawsuits, both from disgruntled consumers and from
publishers." ( )  
Monday's outage will almost certainly fuel discontent.  Last week industry
observer David Simons had already told C|Net that "the price hike will
increase members' sensitivity to all aspects of service quality."  
(,4,19045,00.html )  Confirming his
remarks, one subscriber reacted angrily to an e-mail problem.  "Is this
the type of service that has prompted America On Lies to raise the monthly 
fee," they wrote in a letter to Steve Case, "with no real justification,
other than GREED?"

Price hikes aren't AOL's only money-generating scheme.  Recently AOL
grafted ad banners onto every subscribers' member profile.  On 
Valentine's Day, Reverend Ruth Jensen found a greeting card advertisement
barking "Laugh, Love, or LUST with Online Greetings" below the part of her
profile reading "Occupation:  Minister".

Ironically, the word "lust" appeared in an internal memo outlining AOL's
"Vulgarity Guidelines" for staffers enforcing AOL's Terms of Service in
1995.  ( )
Some subscribers are furious.  "If you see an ad in this space, please
boycott the vendor," one user added to their profile.  "I have not been
consulted or compensated." 

But AOL's quality of service has even affected their responses to
complaints about the ads. "AOL put ads in profiles!" one subscriber
complained in a letter to AOL's technical support. "Take em out!"

"Ads in what profiles?" AOL responded.  "We do not put ads in profiles. 
Please elaborate." 

"Thank you for your use of America Online," the e-mail ended.  "We hope
that you will continue to enjoy the service." 

The quality of responses is also affecting AOL's users.  Several AOL Watch
readers report AOL ignores complaints about troublemakers using chat
room-harassing software.  Even the New York Times noted that AOL's Guide
Pager "is hopelessly backed up.  Many users report waiting half an hour or
longer for a monitor to respond."  
( )  "AOL
just spews out form letters and never does anything," one subscriber told
AOL Watch. 

In fact, AOL's form responses sometimes result in unintentionally humorous
answers.  "While you're at Steve Case's house this Christmas Eve, would
you mind beating him about the head and neck with a blunt instrument?" one
subscriber wrote to AOL's Santa Claus e-mail address. 

"Merry Christmas!!" Santa Claus responded.  "Thanks for letting me know
what you want this year!"

AOL's commitment to form responses is apparently unshakeable, according to
another AOL Watch reader.  "I even titled my message 'AOL Tech lies and
spews random garbage instead of reading their email!'.  And look what they
did.  They spewed more random form letters in response!" 

But more serious problems hit AOL's internal mailing lists.  AOL's
beta-testers receive announcements through a mailing list which apparently
wasn't password-protected.  "Because of this event, I've changed some
things on the ListServ," a beta-program official announced last week. 
Without the protections in place, a prankster had gained the ability to
send mass mailings to all the beta-testers.  An apparently star-struck
intruder interrupted official announcements with a personal greeting. 
"Hi," their unauthorized message read.  "I just thought I would say hi and
stuff!!!.  Bye, ;)" 

Since the mailing-list software had been fooled, that message -- and
another -- appeared to originate from the official's correct e-mail
address. The next day he issued a lengthy apology. "I want to assure you
we are ever conscious of your trust in us keeping your private information
private..." it read -- "we will be vigilant to ensure no breach does

But two days later, troublemakers applied the same tactic to a mailing
list for AOL's Community Leaders -- this time with more serious
consequences.  "This letter is to inform you that your services as a
Community Leader are no longer needed," a fake announcement stated.  "We
at America Online thank you for the time spent helping to improve and
maintain the online environment..." 

One of the affected staffers described their reaction.  "I was upset," 
they told AOL Watch.  Believing they had truly been fired, they contacted
their co-workers to explain their departure.  "Then I found out it was a
hoax, so I wrote everybody back, saying I'm sorry, I got

Ironically, this Community Leader was also employed at a paid AOL
position, and received a legitimate lay-off notice the next day. 

The ultimate irony?  "The faked message was much nicer than that one my
manager sent me!" 

One beta-tester summed up their experience.  "This service has turned into
a complete joke."  AOL appears to have lowered expectations for security
as well as quality of service.  Just last week Robert Pittman, the new
president of AOL Networks, adopted an apologetic tone. "Are we perfect?"
he asked the Washington Post.  "Are we doing what we should be?  Probably

("But remember that we don't have 50 years of building quality service..." 
he added -- "...we're still trying to find out what works best.") 

In fact, Pittman describes himself to the Post as a technology "moron". 
"He opines that many of the techies who work for him believe he's 'a
complete idiot' around computers," the paper reports.  But they attribute
the modest appraisal to an "aw-shucks manner".  (Though the article also
notes the AOL executive never received a college degree...) 

With so many problems, why don't subscribers simply leave the service? 
It's not easy, one user reports.  After a thirty-day free trial, they
attempted to cancel their account.  "I tried to do it on-line, but they
don't let you anymore," they complained.  And phoning 1-800-827-6364
didn't offer much of an improvement.  "I called, but if you choose the
option to cancel, you are put on permanent hold."

After two days of unsuccessful attempts, they'd reached a customer service
agent -- who offered to give them free service for a second month.  After
the subscriber declined the offer, they'd realized the two days had pushed
them over the 30-day limit.  A charge for the second month appeared on
their bill. 

"If I had taken the second month and then cancelled, I would've paid
nothing -- but by cancelling I had to pay for a month." 


After AOL's outage Monday night, subscribers logging on received pop-up
advertisements.  But the ads' pitches fell into an unfortunate pattern. 

"STOP TYPING" read the first one -- leading to information about
voice-enabled software.

"Hang up," read the next ad, "on MCI and Sprint." 

   David Cassel
   More Information ,4,19082,00.html


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