AOLfree: You’ve Got Problems!

I haven’t run AOL software since about the time in the late 1990s when Marshall Rose and I were writing our book on Internet Messaging together. We wanted to call the book “You’ve Got Mail” but that is a story for another day. So when AOL announced last week that they were migrating to a free service for those of us that didn’t need their dialup connections any more (dialup? Who uses dialup?) I had to try it out.

Boy, did I enter the wayback machine, Mr. Peabody. Before I knew what was going on, my hard disk had filled up with AOL bloatware. I count the following programs now installed care of Time Warner:

AOL Coach, AOL Connection Services, AOL Deskbar, AOL Spyware Protector, AOL IE Toolbar, AOL You’ve Got Pictures screensaver, Real’s Player, QuickTime, and AOL Computer Check Up. Not to mention the AOL Uninstaller, which only uninstalls one of the above programs. As my friend Barry Gerber would say, who designed this crap?

The AOLfree version faithfully replicates the AOL paid experience: you have AOL IM, a browser to AOL’s portal (when was the last time you needed to check that page?), and of course, AOL email (if you can find a series of characters and numbers that no one else has already grabbed). But why would anyone want to do this? The days of a “walled garden” — as AOL once called its portal — are long over, and most people use whatever email and browser they want these days.

However, there are a couple of things that it doesn’t do, things that parents should know. One of the most useful things of a real AOL account was the ability to set children’s access to content and how they would use their IM and email accounts. While most teens these days know more than parents and how to get around these blocks, the pre-teen set can benefit from these controls. The AOLfree universe is completely free of parental controls.

But if you are still using AOL and don’t have youngsters around, you want to get off the AOL bus now. This is why their phone lines are being clogged with users who want out of their monthly AOL tax on their Internet access. BTW, the number to call is 1-888-265-8008 and operators are standing by 24/7. I will save you the trouble of looking it up on, which isn’t the easiest thing to find. And don’t get me started on how much of a maze AOLhelp online is. There are so many blind alleys on their Web site that any noob trying to figure this out isn’t going to get very far. Clearly, they are working on their site. (When I went under AOLhelp, account questions, price plans AOL offers; I got “We’re sorry, currently there are no available documents for this section.” Oops.)

Yes, there are some semi-useful tools, such as AOL Computer Check Up, which scans and attempts to fix your hard disk for things that are wrong with it, but there are better programs around for free, including from my friend Dave Methvin. And there is its Spyware blocker, but after installing all these other AOL thingies I am not sure that I can find the blocker among all my desktop clutter anymore. And why, pray tell, do I need both Real and QuickTime players on my machine? Certainly, one would be enough to play all that video content that AOL now is streaming at me, including the intro video with the cute blonde showing me what the software does, which is almost worth the entire hassle of installing and uninstalling AOLfree.

No, this is one piece of freeware that you get exactly what you pay for: a mish-mash of second-rate software, all so that you can have a “vanity” AOL email address to indicate to the rest of the world that you continue to be a clueless noob. Glenn Fleishman writes equally harsh language in this week’s newsletter:

AOL’s software still stinks. AOL’s email filtering is highly erratic. Any of us who run mailing lists are familiar with suddenly having all of our double opt-in, fully approved AOL users bounce our email for some obscure reason that’s impossible to address directly with AOL.

AOLfree is just another in piece of their software that continues to annoy me. I wrote a short review of their latest AIM Pro IM client for Computerworld that you can read here.

When I wrote that piece I got a few emails from people within AOL that wanted to talk to me. They didn’t provide phone numbers, and I assumed they were product managers so I emailed them back, saying I welcome a dialog. Never heard another peep out of them. Perhaps they didn’t receive my message — but this is just another indication of how hard it is to deal with the company. I think we can say that the merger with Time Warner has been successful at reverse cherry-picking the aspects of two dysfunctional corporate cultures and creating a worst-of-breed new media company.

AOL has done a terrific job of getting noobs on the Net, and providing an IM service for teens that is now being used by many businesses. But their software efforts suffer from coming from a large corporation that has lost its will to be an innovator. There isn’t any reason to use AOLfree. If you still have as your domain, it is time to consider other alternatives, like Google, Earthlink, and hundreds of other places that will do a better job.

7 thoughts on “AOLfree: You’ve Got Problems!

  1. Several readers wrote in with their comments about the AOL piece. I will just identify different speakers by numbers, to protect the innocent.

    1. I know it is fun to throw stones at AOL these days (and before), but I thought I’d share my own quite positive experience.

    I am a Charter AOL subscriber, and have been paying them monthly at their “Bring Your Own ISP” rate for several years now. (I thought it was pretty innovative of them to offer this option quite a while ago.) When I learned of the newest rate — $zero — for the access I needed, I went to, logged in, and went to “My Account info”. There was a button for “Speak with an Account Rep”, which brought up a chat window. Even though this was no more than 8 hours after the announcement, he knew what I wanted to do, and was able, after verifying my identity through a series of questions, to move me to the “no fee” category.

    Hopefully the change will go through as promised, but meanwhile I thought you’d like to know they are not total losers over at AOL.

    2. This comment always leave me wondering if you’ve not forgotten the one
    best place: a registrar.

    See I believe businesses with an address are still using it simply because it is very, very difficult to switch. You must tell the world that your email has changed and it takes *years* to get that point across because you may not know how many contacts you have. Consider when you’ve printed a address in your user guide and literature for a few years. How do you let your customer know that the address has changed?

    Somehow I believe that Gmail will go down the same path as AOL… meaning it will no longer be this hot property with which you absolutely want to associate yourself with. Something new and better will have emerged. We’ve seen it at least a dozen times since you wrote that book on email 😉

    For the last few years, I’ve always encouraged my friends to get a domain name of their own. It’s inexpensive and it’s the only guarantee that you can switch email provider without a glitch.

    3. I can tell you why some people might really like AOL (especially for free). I believe you will find that is will basically act as an anonymous proxy for you… i.e.: your websurfing will show various AOL IP addresses, not your providers ISP. It won’t raise any red flags…

    4. AOL’s declining market share is due not to the bloatware, the dial-up or the content, it’s because we’re seeing fewer and fewer net tourists. The Net Natives (you, me and the people who read your newsletter) might be dismissive of the whole AOL experience, but the reality is that for people who can’t make a new folder on their computer, for people who don’t really know what the internet is all about, AOL is a big Double-Decker Tour Bus loaded with gawkers and blocking the way of the locals. The funny thing is that some people get off the bus and they even become net natives themselves, and stare back at the bus in disdain just like you. But AOL serves a purpose.

    5. More importantly, why is this not considered an act of spyware? It’s arguably installation of software without notice and consent?

    > The AOLfree universe is completely free of parental controls.

    Not just AOL, but MSN and Yahoo! as well. The protocols have been reverse engineered and put into open source clients, the variability across clients w/r/t features and controls is staggering.

    6. I remember back in the early-mid 90s when mass distributed their diskettes (and then CDs) the only thing their crap was good for back then was for glass and bottle coasters and mini-freezbee. They never changed one iota — it’s a weird thing i noticed about companies in this space, they never change along the way.

  2. D – do appreciate your writeups, but the fact that your Computerworld article on AIM Pro still has the errors in it regarding the fact that it DOES include free federation with Lotus and other corporate IM players (something Jabber and others do not have for free) is a nagging thing that needs to be cleaned up – would appreciate the fix.


  3. Ok, So help me out. I almost fell for the free but after reading your article I canceld the download. Where can I get good spam, antivirus, popup blocker and computer check up. I live on a fixed income and neeeeeed help


  4. Last week I downloaded McAfee 2007 the download only took 1 hr. 45 min. Now my computer is running at less than half speed and some pages on the internet will not run or freeze up when when they do. also I complained to a site named now my service will not let me get back to that site. McAfee also my personal computers security sign in and required password. Any ideas?

  5. I really didnt know people felt this was the abusive type of nagware..I found it & never tried to uninstall it i dont have AOL at all, never have but the youve got pictures screensaver lets me put 100 pix of my favorite actress as my screensaver.& choose how long each pic is displayed..nice transitions, random pick of ones pix..o really like it…ofcourse i hate AOL, but then who doesnt hate Microsoft..but might love a few things they do too?

  6. Pingback: Aolfree

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