Web Informant #215, 25 September 2000:
AOL, the ultimate legacy family application


I am on a crusade to terminate my family's AOL account. It isn't because I have anything against AOL, really -- what they offer is a fine service for some people. And the $5 monthly fee isn't any big deal. But since I got my cable modem several years ago, I have been trying hard to move my family over to from AOL. It is the principle of the thing.

The problem has to do with how good a job AOL has done with implementing its features, and how poor a job my broadband network provider and others have done with offering replacements for these features.

Understand that I appreciate what AOL has done for my family, getting them their first taste of the online world. The service has lots of impressive features, including the ability to create multiple accounts and keep the messages to and from these account in separate places on a single, shared machine. You can restrict access to various things for your kids, depending on their age, your own intelligence, and whether you really understand all the access controls at your disposal. And you can now pretty much get dial-up access to AOL from around the world, a feature that I myself have found useful. There have been times when I have been stuck in some odd corner and where having an AOL account has helped me get connected and receive my own email.

Just take those three key features (multiple accounts, content restrictions, and worldwide roaming) and see what happens when you get a broadband connection. In a word, it is a pain.

If you want to share a single machine and give everybody their own email account, you have some work ahead if you want to do this using your average email software, whether it be Microsoft Outlook, Eudora, or Netscape Messenger. It can be done, with a bit of work and some effort. You have to know a lot about your email software, and be prepared to experiment before you get it set up properly. With AOL, it takes about two minutes to set up a new account.

What about content restrictions? Again, you can configure your browser with the crude tools available, and you might be even able to restrict your children's email accounts if you know enough about how to set up rules and filters. It is even more effort, though, and no guarantee that you keep it running however. AOL's parental controls are safe, obvious and easy, provided you don't give your own password out to your kids.

As an interesting side-note, today's New York Times carries a thought in an article about teen computer usage. One parent is quoted as saying that she uses the level of her daughter's access restrictions on AOL as a means of disciplining her: when the kid is acting out, she "busts" her down a notch to a younger-oriented age group. As someone who has spent much time discussing this topic with my daughter, let me tell you this may be one of the last levers we have as parents left in this permissive world. Today's kids are very aware of their "level" on AOL -- and there are many parents that grant their kids full access to their AOL accounts, something I wouldn't recommend for most kids. And I haven't even gotten around to mentioning Instant Messaging, which can be accomplished from a broadband connection without the standard AOL client software but again requires some knowledge and installation headaches.

Then there is roaming. When you get a broadband account, you can't go anywhere with it. That means if you travel with your laptop, you'll need something else to connect to the Internet. And while many hotels are finally getting the word and installing Ethernet jacks in their guest rooms, most of the times you'll need some sort of dialup account to get connected. Of course, once you do get connected you'll find that you can't easily get access to your email that resides on the broadband provider's server, unless you do some tricks with using web-based email viewers or have the ability to send email through your dial-up provider, but I'll save that for another essay.

This is a big issue: my office DSL line is shared with a couple of small businesses that are down the hall from me. One of them isn't new to the net and still has to maintain their email account on their own web-hosting provider, since they can't use my DSL provider for their email when they are at home (or anywhere besides here in the building).

Add all these technical obstacles on top of the intransigence of your family members who don't want to switch, and you'll get a powerful reason to stick with AOL. And until Microsoft and others figure out the various ease of use factors and family-oriented features, AOL will be with us for many years to come. It is the ultimate legacy family application, more established than any 1980's COBOL program running on your company's mainframe.

No matter whether you have a cable modem or a DSL line to your home, if you attempt to turn off AOL you will be met with derision, debate, and disgust from the rest of your family members. If you have children, it will be very hard to de-AOLicize your computing life. Our kids, for better or worse, have become brand specifiers when it comes to Internet access, and that brand is first and foremost AOL.

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David Strom
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