This month: Thoughts on America Online • Adventures In Updating to System 7.5.3

Hey, everyone. Hope everybody out there is enjoying the summer as much as I am. For some reason, though, I am still typing away at my Mac, despite the wonderful weather outside. That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the great outdoors; being a Little League coach and delivering newspapers every day give me plenty of opportunities to do that. Regardless, this month I finally deliver my not-so-favorable thoughts on America Online, as well as deliver an anecdote about bringing my computer up-to-date in the area of system software. (As was already stated in the header up above. I figure I change topics rather frequently, and so I decided to warn you ahead of time what I’m writing about from now on. Any thoughts on this little feature? I’d be glad to hear ‘em, and any other thoughts you might have. :-) Now, on with the show.

I can still remember the qualms I had on April 6, 1996. I had been without a true online home for a whole week, after eWorld’s departure, and was eager to get plugged in again. However, I had my reservations about joining America Online. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t hold very high expectations for AOL. So, maybe my premonitions have biased me a little bit. But then again, that’s why I’ve given AOL two and a half months to grow on me, instead of thrashing it in my May column like I originally intended to. Unfortunately, although my feelings toward AOL have improved some in that time, I am still for the most part disappointed with the Big Daddy of Online Services. Especially in light of the fact that I constantly find myself comparing it to eWorld, because eWorld was based on American Online’s software.

I’ll start with what I enjoy about America Online. After all, it does have some very good qualities.

One of AOL’s saving graces is that WONDERFUL feature of downloading in the background! This is easily my favorite feature of AOL. It should be noted that the files take a noticeably longer time to transfer if you are doing other things, too, but that’s OK. I missed this feature a lot on eWorld, and because of its absence I was hesitant to download large files, and also spent limited time in chat rooms, because of the time factor involved. On AOL, I am much quicker to take twenty minutes or half an hour to download something. Plus, if I’ve got a file downloading and have fifteen minutes to kill, what better to do than to drop in on a conference and chat for a while? I don’t have to worry about chatting taking too much time anymore — I couldn’t sign off anyway, as long as that file’s still being transferred.

Which brings me to AOL’s second strong point. The chat rooms are numerous and diverse, and unlike eWorld, you never have to worry about there being enough people around. In fact, the opposite can be true, but I’ll get to that later on. There’s always something going on somewhere, so you can chat anytime, on a lot of different subjects. A lot of word games, discussions, and things like that led by AOL staff members are also abundant and fun to participate in.

I used to believe that people who said eWorld did not have enough content were crazy. OK, I still do, but I can see the point they were trying to make. America Online does have tons more in the way of subject matter, but the main selling point here is not quantity, but quality. I wouldn’t care how many forums AOL had if they were all boring and did not interest me. That was my point with eWorld’s critics — who needs three hundred thousand forums if I really like the three dozen available? (Those numbers are exaggerated, by the way, I have no idea as to the exact figures.) But, now that I have had a chance to see what AOL has to offer, I will admit some of the places, like MTV Online, are really cool, and give AOL an advantage over what eWorld had. But it’s not the fact that there’s so many forums present, it’s that the ones that I enjoy the most are there.

Going back to the subject of file downloading, I’ll admit that AOL’s file libraries are numerous and large. This is a mixed blessing, because while there are tons of files to choose from, finding them or knowing which libraries to browse can be confusing and frustrating. Doing a keyword search is great, but often you run into several hundred matching files, with many repeats because the same program appears in several different libraries. So, I’ll agree that the size and selection is top-notch, but organization could be a little better in my mind. That’s why I’m jumping for joy that Ziff-Davis has opened their file library on AOL. ZiffNet/Mac was one of eWorld’s best, most reliable features, and I really missed it. Thank goodness they’re here!

OK, so far, America Online is sounding pretty good. I’m almost convincing myself that things can’t be as bad as I think they are. But then, I’m reminded of what I DON’T like about AOL.

Everything about the service seems WAY too “commercial.” One of my biggest pet peeves is when I sign on and am greeted by a “buy this” screen. We’ll just charge it to your credit card, they say. Sorry, that’s not for me. If I want to buy something over the Internet, I’ll visit your online store. Do not make the store come to me. I have nothing against an advertisement or two, but this screen appears WAY too often when I sign on for my liking.

Speaking of buying things, there’s that incident a couple weeks ago when AOL called me. The conversation went something like this:

“We’ll be sending you our 550-page guidebook for you to look over,” they say.

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“You’ll have ten days to return it if you aren’t satisfied, but it’s a really good book. We’ll charge it to your account. We’re pretty confident you’ll like it.”

“Do you have to send it out and inconvenience me by making me return it? Can’t you just not send it to me?”

“No, we think you’ll like it, so we want you to take a look. It’ll arrive within the next few business days. It’s a really good book.”

“Fine,” I say, and hang up. Inwardly, I was thinking, “Sure, it’s a really good book. No, John Grisham and Michael Crichton write really good books.”

So, the book arrives in its FedEx packaging, and sits on my table for a couple days. In its FedEx packaging. I bring it back to the post office to have it returned, in its FedEx packaging. What a waste.

The next time I sign on to AOL, I check my billing record to see how much time I have left before they start charging me extra. Whoa! The bill is about, oh, twenty bucks too high. After looking at the more detailed billing statement I requested, I see the culprit. One such AOL book purchase. Grrr.

OK, moving on. My next beef about AOL is all the blasted artwork. I was told it was bad, but I didn’t think it would be this bad! I honestly thought, “Come on, eWorld was about as graphical as you could get, and I didn’t mind those art downloads. How bad can it be?”

Pretty bad, I found out. Hey, I think it’s a great idea that America Online wants to have a graphical interface. We live in an era of GUIs, after all. But, really, do we need an icon in the Keyword window? Do we need all those icons on our mail? Wouldn’t just a few words, like “Attach File,” “Send Later,” and “Send Now” suffice, instead of the cute little pictures? I hope there aren’t that many illiterate AOL users out there that they need to use symbols to get their message across. eWorld didn’t use all these pictures; it just had buttons to click on. I don’t mean to keep coming back to eWorld all the time, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? Isn’t AOL using just a little too much? Isn’t it overkill? I certainly think so.

Next, I feel that America Online has simply gotten TOO big. Six million users and counting? Say what?!?!? You get lost in the shuffle rather easily, I’m afraid. There’s a couple of problems with AOL being this huge.

First, I can’t count how many times I’ve had trouble connecting, or have gotten disconnected, or have experienced the online equivalent of being “put on hold.” The server always seems to be working overtime, and I’m told it’s because there’s too many people trying to access the service.

Once I’m online, and I decide to join in a chat, I’m greeted by over a hundred people. One discussion I was in had over 300 participants! What happened? There was a small group of people who dominated the conversation, many people were never heard, there were too many discussions going on to follow along very well, and you never really got a chance to get to know anyone. If you do happen to start an intelligent conversation with a person, and get to know them, there’s little chance you’ll meet again. I have yet to stop in a chat room and find more than just a stray name or two that I recognize. Most of the time I’ve never heard of or met any of the participants before. Where’s the sense of community in that? I’m not going to mention eWorld here, OK? I’m just not pleased with the chatting AOL has to offer. It’s not awful, and like I said, there’s plenty of variety. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. However, it could be so much better, if they’d limit the number of participants a little. But then you’d have people mad that they couldn’t join in. That supports my idea of AOL simply getting too big for its britches.

Finally, I haven’t seen commercial software that is as unstable as America Online’s. I suggest cutting back the number of free disks they send out by a few million, and using the money saved to improve the software on those disks. I can handle the occasional freeze — after all, I guess Netscape will do the same — but what about losing the Online Database file every other week? I double-click ON THE DATABASE FILE to launch AOL, and it still says it can’t find it. So, what must you do? Reinstall the software. Fun, fun, fun!

America Online also seems to be trying too hard to broadcast this “image” to us of being a friendly, family-oriented, nice, wholesome online service. The parental control filter may be a good thing, and I support that, but I get the impression they are really trying to force-feed us into forming an opinion about AOL’s wholesomeness. And how many times must they remind you to never give out your password online? Are people stupid?

Hold on a minute… are people stupid? That’s it! That’s how I describe my general annoyance with AOL. I feel like America Online is talking down to me, treating me like a novice, a newbie. Gee, and they wonder why Internet users dislike AOL members, and dreaded the day that AOL gained Internet access…

I have to admit, AOL is not a BAD service. I’m getting by, and at times I’m even enjoying being here. But, I really can’t recommend it to everyone without also suggesting they look into other options. I simply think that there’s got to be something better, and that’s why I’m hunting for an ISP right now. AOL fills a niche, and probably does it well, but it’s just not the service for me.

•••••

Heh-heh-heh. The best things come to those who wait, right? Well, just as Tim and Russ were complaining last issue about seeing the System 7.5 Update 2.0 CD in the latest issue of MacUser, I was happily buying my very own polybagged copy.

After all, that was where I had obtained my copy of the first system update. So rather than pay for it, or call and order a copy after it was free, I banked on the fact that the disc would show up in one magazine or another, sooner or later. I was right!

With my new treasure in hand, I used my first day of summer vacation to update my system software. Just like the first update, it was easy, quick, and painless to do so. Apple really does an excellent job with their installer program.

With the update successfully installed, I restarted and was eager to start working. Nope. Didn’t happen. I was constantly experiencing freezes and system errors. Guessing it was another wonderful system extension conflict, I restarted and held down the space bar to bring the extensions manager up. Booting with only System 7.5.3 extensions turned on worked fine. As I began to add more and more shareware and third party extensions into the mix, I began to have this gut feeling that RAM Doubler was to blame. You bet, baby! Connectix’s wonderful program was (once again) the culprit.

That night, I signed on to America Online and paid a visit to Connectix’s forum. Hey, waddayaknow, there’s an update available! I quickly downloaded the updater, signed off, and updated my copy of Ram Doubler. System 7.5.3 runs like a charm now.

How has the new OS helped me? Well, other than the fact that it should be faster and more stable, it hasn’t much. I’m not an Open Transport user yet, although I plan to experiment with it when I get a direct Internet connection from an ISP. Otherwise, I really can hardly tell the difference over System 7.5.1. However, I have the smug feeling of knowing that I am on the cutting edge, running the most up-to-date version of the MacOS available. Yes, world, I am an informed power user, and no one can tell me any different. Why? ‘Cuz I’m running System 7.5.3!

Is that a slightly illogical line of thinking? Yeah, probably. Oh well. I can’t wait for Harmony to come out!

•••••

Well, lately I seem to be jumping the gun on some of my cyberspace endeavors. For those of you wondering about the Web site by Tony Vlismas I mentioned last issue, don’t worry. It’s not off the ground yet. I was a little trigger happy.

The same is true for my direct connection. It’s coming… it’s just not here as soon as I’d hoped it would be! I WILL be hooked up by the end of this month, though, and that’s a promise! I hope…

So, I’m not even going to try to preview next month’s writings. I’ve been rather inconsistent with that lately, too. I’ll keep you in suspense until then, but don’t worry, you’ll be able to find out my topic by just glancing at the top of the article, instead of having to actually read it all. :-)

Until then, all the best to all of you out there!

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