AOL Gripe, Gripe, Gripe

America OnLine is the most popular on-line service

Griping about America OnLine is like stealing candy from a baby, so easy as not to be sport. To someone in the gripe field, it's low hanging fruit. I will avoid most of the temptation myself, and instead link to the writings of others.

Gripes on this pageAOL and CensorshipGetting SuedSpamEmailSecurityAOL Version 7AOL Version 6Installing AOL Version 5Installing AOL Version 6They Hate AOLAOLTVAOL Plus (DSL service)Price HikesAIM  and  Assorted Gripes.

"My best advice for any software coming from any part of AOL is to use extreme caution. Or better still, simply avoid it altogether."  Fred Langa. March 19, 2001 

AOL and Censorship

Fred Langa's newsletter, the Langa List, on May 4, 2000 discusses "Censorship, Big Brother, AOL, and Site Ratings". In addition to keeping children away from porn web sites, Mr. Langa makes the case that AOL also uses their web filters to promote a political agenda. For example, children can visit the home page of the Republican National Committee, but not the Democratic National Committee. In general, AOL allows access to conservative web sites more often than to liberal web sites and readers of the newsletter have cited examples regarding gun control and abortion. Quoting Fred Langa: 

"this kind of content filtering is a truly evil thing if it's deliberate; and a truly inexcusable thing even if it's just programmatic sloppiness or stupidity: This has nothing to do with protecting kids. It amounts to censorship, and it's dead wrong."

Read the entire Fred Langa piece by clicking here.  

AOL's "youth filters" protect kids from Democrats 
CNet covered this story on April 24, 2000. America Online provides "youth filters" that are supposed to keep kids out of dangerous Web sites--but they seem designed to eliminate creeping liberalism. 

AOL Restrictions Alleged
October 10, 2000; The Washington Post. Page E01. By Alec Klein
America Online Inc. has imposed contractual conditions on Walt Disney Co. in recent years that aim to deter users from leaving AOL's network to reach competitors on the Web, according to sources who have reviewed the confidential documents. 

Getting Sued

AOL can't distribute their version 6.0 Software. October 30, 2001. CNET San Jose Mercury News. A federal judge has ordered AOL to temporarily stop distributing its AOL 6.0 software, saying its decision to bundle MP3-playback software licensed by AOL subsidiary Nullsoft from PlayMedia Systems likely violates the terms of that license, which restricted its use to "within Winamp." "PlayMedia has established probable success in proving that AOL exceeded the grant of  the license," said U.S. District Judge Howard Matz. If upheld, the ruling  could force AOL Time Warner to pay millions of dollars in damages, marketing expenses and costs to retrieve or alter existing copies of their version 6 software. PlayMedia is seeking $47 million in damages. The AOL version 7 is not effected by this ruling. 

Harris Files Suit Against AOL Over Blocking of E-Mail 
August 3, 2000. The New York Times. By Laurie J. Flynn
Harris Interactive, which regularly conducts surveys of 1.5 million participants, is suing America Online and other ISPs it claims illegally block e-mail from Harris to its survey participants. Harris contends it never sends unsolicited mass mailings and that all of its survey participants have registered to receive questionnaires. The suit also includes an antitrust complaint against AOL, whose own online market-research company, Digital Marketing Systems, is a direct competitor to Harris.
America Online Sued for Blocking E-Mails 
August 1, 2000. The same story as above from This article quotes a Harris spokesman as saying that AOL's browser also restricts AOL users from visiting Harris' Web site.  

Lawsuit Says You Can't Escape Netscape
July 6, 2000. The Standard. The latest lawsuit accuses America Online's subsidiary Netscape of illegally tracking Web surfers and violating federal privacy laws. According to the complaint, Netscape's SmartDownload program secretly monitors downloads of .exe and .zip files from Web sites. Netscape transmits information about these downloaded files back to itself, along with an identifying cookie lodged in each copy of Netscape's Navigator Web browser. In effect, it is eavesdropping on you. magazine covered this story on July 7, 2000. 
Wired magazine covered this story on July 7, 2000. 
Steve Gibson, a very reliable source, has much information on his web site about spyware in general. As for the Netscape SmartDownload, he says

users of Netscape's Smart Download utility, who unwittingly joined Netscape's "NetCenter" system, are especially at risk of privacy violation because NetCenter members also have their NetCenter logon ID and their personal email address sent with each file download report!

Fred Langa covered this in the July 17, 2000 issue of his newsletter where he pointed out that all users of Netscape Communicator will end up in the AOL database. He further says that using Netscape Smart Download requires registering at the NetCenter web site which means (quoting):  

AOL/Netscape will have your name, email, and other personal info on file. This means they can (if they choose) associate your downloads with *you* individually and specifically, and not just with some arbitrary machine-generated ID. This is so wrong it's beyond words. Alas, it's also very, very typical of AOL's abusive approach to end-users; seeing them only as passive targets for advertising. 

Lawsuits related to AOL 5.0 software
Small ISP sues AOL
  April 4, 2000. CNet. A small Internet service provider, Galaxy Internet Services, has sued America Online in federal court in Boston, charging that AOL 5.0 blocks subscribers from using other ISPs.  

CNN carried a story from PC World magazine on March 3,2000 about the flood of lawsuits against AOL regarding its version 5 software. Suits have been filed in New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado, and Ohio. All the lawsuits allege that AOL 5.0 makes changes to customers' PCs that make it hard, if not impossible, for them to connect to alternative Internet service providers.

Lawsuit claims AOL 5.0 blocks rival services February 2, 2000. CNet. Lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against America Online on behalf of 8 million customers, claiming that the latest version of its software cripples existing Internet accounts with rival companies.

InfoWorld also covered this story on February 3, 2000 as did PC World on February 25, 2000. 

The Register has also covered this story.
  February 3, 2000 they wrote about the filing of the lawsuits about AOL 5.0. 
  February 25, 2000 they wrote about additional lawsuits against AOL regarding the version 5.0 software. 
  April 5, 2000 they wrote about a lawsuit by Galaxy Internet Services regarding AOL 5.0 software
  February 14, 2001 they wrote about the AOL legal defense strategy for these lawsuits. 

As of February 15, 2001 it is expected that this will come to trial in March 2001 in Miami. AOL is expected to argue that their Terms of Service for using AOL states that they are not blame if the software causes you problems. Specifically, it says that use of AOL software is undertaken at the user's "sole risk." On the other hand, the user does not see the Terms of Service until after the AOL 5.0 software has been installed.  

The National Federation of the Blind has sued AOL claiming that the AOL software violates the Americans With Disabilities Act because it is incompatible with many voice recognition software programs. These programs allow people to control their computers with their voices rather than a keyboard. If web pages are correctly formatted, the programs can also read aloud the text on them. The suit is pending as of September 4, 2000.

Double Dipping 
June 25, 2000. A class action lawsuit is pending against AOL regarding pop-up ads. There are 23 million AOL customers, of which about 2.5 million are on limited usage plans. After these customers use up their allotted hours, they pay for each additional hour. They also pay to view pop-up ads during these additional hours. This double dipping, charging both users and advertisers at the same time for the same ad, is the subject of the lawsuit. The suit, which covers 1994 through 1999, claims AOL doesn't tell people that it counts the time used by pop-up advertising towards billing. The story was covered by CNN and the San Jose Mercury News


May 20, 2000. Neat Net Tricks Newsletter  issue 78. This is a direct quote from the newsletter: "And while on the subject of spam and what's being done about it, a "thumbs-down" is in order to AOL for its latest seeming indifference to spam reports. They have apparently even a abolished their autoresponders and we can only assume that any complaints regarding the incessant spam over AOL lines are falling on deaf ears." There is no direct link to a web page that has the content of this newsletter. 

AOL, Love It or Log Off It  You've Got Junk E-Mail!
February 25, 2000. The Washington Post. One persons account of why they started using AOL and the spam flood that caused them to stop. The link has expired, to read this article you have to search for it on the web site of the newspaper which sells their old stories. 


AOL email is not standard Internet email and there are a number of repercussions to this. 

Fred Langa's newsletter, the Langa List discussed on October 23, 2000 changes to AOL email in the upcoming version 6 of the AOL software. A reader said that the AOL address book will be moved from your computer to AOL's computers, the advantage being that no matter where you log on from, your address book will always be available. Also, the v6 address book will let you input phone numbers, real addresses, birthdays and more. In response, Mr. Langa said: 
... of all the online services, AOL is by far the worst when it comes to protecting its users from spam. Plus, AOL itself has been repeatedly accused of assisting its advertisers to spam---er, excuse me--- to send "targeted advertising" to its members. AOL, and AOL member accounts, also are a favorite target for malicious hackers. The thought of placing all my contact information, address book, etc., on AOL's servers gives me the willies. 

Fred Langa's newsletter, the Langa List discussed AOL email on October 12, 2000. The topic was how it does not support normal, standard hyperlinks. As a result, AOL customers have to copy/paste hyperlinks from an email message into their web browser. Many newsletters will supply hyperlinks both in standard format and in a special format just for AOL users. An AOL customer was told the reason for this is to avoid downloading viruses. This is not true. Quoting Mr. Langa: 

There's absolutely no technical reason why AOL can't allow hyperlinks in external email--- or, for that matter, why they can't use the same public email standards almost *everyone else* uses. But instead, AOL has stuck with an ancient and proprietary email standard...

FYI (not a gripe): In the Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2000 and March 14, 2002 Walter Mossberg mentioned a $20 Windows program that lets AOL users get their AOL email using normal Internet email programs. The program is called eNetBot and it can be downloaded from I have not used eNetBot. He specifically mentioned that it works with Outlook Express, Outlook and Eudora. He did not say whether it works with other email programs too. 

AOL blocked email messages from Harvard University informing students of their admission status. January 1, 2002. AOL thought they were junk mail (spam). Due to the anthrax spores Harvard used e-mail to inform 6,000 applicants of whether they had been rejected or accepted. For reasons that AOL could not explain, they blocked between 75 and 100 of the e-mails in December. Read about it at  

When AOL and Time Warner merged, divisions of the old Time Warner were forced to adopt the AOL email system for internal use throughout the new company. Everyone hated the AOL email system and the policy has been changed. Among the attributes of AOL email that the article identified as making it unfit for serious business use were: the software crashed, messages can't handle large attachments, people were arbitrarily kicked offline, sometimes e-mails were lost and never found, and messages sent to large groups of people were mis-identified as spam and thrown away. 
Return to sender: AOL nixes e-mail rule CNET by Jim Hu  March 22, 2002
AOL mail: OK for others, not itself By Matthew Rose and Martin Peers The Wall Street Journal. March 22, 2002. 

I sent an AOL7 user an email message with a plain text (.TXT) file attached to it. AOL7 converted the attached file into part of the main body of the message. As a result, the recipient could not download the file, there was no attachment to download. The whole idea was for the recipient to download the file. To get around this, I sent the same file again, but this time the file name had no file type, that is, the name was a single string of characters with no dots/periods at all. Again, AOL converted the attached file to be part of the body of the message so the recipient again could not download the file. Then we tried to get the data onto the recipients computer by copying and pasting the data from the email message into Notepad. The did not work either because AOL7 looked into the attached file and displayed some HTML there as a web page rather than as plain text. This meant that HTML formatting, such as H2 tags were lost, they could not be copied and pasted. Eventually, I had to make a web page with a link to the plain text file and have the user download the file by right clicking on the web page link. The next day I tested this with an AOL6 user. The results were the same.  June 25, 2002

Walter Mossberg. The Wall Street Journal. July 11, 2002. Mossberg's Mailbox. A reader wants to quit AOL but has a large AOL address book and asked how to export the address book to Outlook Express. Mr. Mossberg suggested a program called Address Magic which costs $30. However it only works with the English language version of AOL 7. He also mentioned that Microsoft makes switching from AOL to MSN easy by providing software called TrueSwitch that transfers AOL address book entries to MSN's address book.


AOL glitch keeps old passwords alive 
CNet January 12, 2001. This article describes a problem with AOL web based email. After changing the email password, some people have found that their old password still works. 

Unfair Trade Practices Complaint Filed Against Truste/AOL 
An unfair trade practices complaint has been filed with the Federal Trade Commission against the TRUSTe privacy seal program and America Online. The complaint stems from the claims made by both TRUSTe and AOL that the "AOL.COM" web site is covered by the program. Only a small portion of the AOL site is actually covered. The member's portion of AOL.COM is not covered and member's personal information, such as screen name and credit card information, is released to telemarketers. AOL is  a "Premiere Corporate Sponsor" of  TRUSTe. The FTC has taken no action. I first read about this in the August 28, 2000 issue of the Langa List newsletter which had a summary of the story. 

AOL glitch lets teens access blocked sites
CNet. July 13, 2000. America Online is scrambling today to patch a hole that allows its Parental Control content filtering system to be subverted, enabling teens to access forbidden Web addresses.  The glitch could prove embarrassing for AOL which touts the filtering control system as a safe way for parents to prevent their children from accessing violent or sexually explicit sites on the Net. The bug was discovered by an 11 year old child three years ago, but AOL was not aware of it until CNet called them. 

Even "MacGyver" is no match for an AOL security breach. Salon Magazine March 27, 2000. 
As a result of security problem with AOL software, a teenager hijacked the AOL Instant Messenger account "MacGyver". The teenager thus corresponded with the victims friends pretending to be the victim. AOL support staffers did not help the victim when he called. AOL refused to discuss the matter with the author of the article until their PR department was informed that a reporter was writing about it, then they restored the AIM id to the victim. A related story from January 2000 describes the stealing of AIM passwords in more detail. 

The Browser Hijacking section of talks at length about the problem of web sites changing the IE home page and search page. They also have multiple solutions. They note that AOL has started doing something similar by placing it's web site in IE's trusted sites security zone, thereby bypassing some security settings. June 28,2002.

AOL  Version 7

November 15, 2001. Walter Mossberg. The Wall Street Journal. In reviewing the AOL v7 software, he noted that AOL was "worse than ever at hectoring you to sign up for, or buy, its products and services." Installing the v7 software resulted in five new promotional icons being added to the Windows desktop. In addition to installing the AOL software, it also created folders on his hard disk for four other AOL software products, all without notice. 

AOL  Version  6

Two bugs with Adobe Acrobat reader (this information came from Adobe):  (January 5, 2002) 
--In Windows 95, clicking on a link to a PDF file within AOL6 with IE 5.5 installed may take two-four minutes to load. To get around this use a web browser outside of the AOL software. 
--In AOL6 software, doing File -> Open will open a PDF file in a text editor. You are informed by a dialog box that the PDF file is not a recognized file type. To get around this, select the PDF file in Windows Explorer and the Acrobat Reader will open just fine. 

I regularly correspond by email with someone who uses AOL. This person recently upgraded to AOL version 6. Now when I reply to their email messages, the text in their message is no longer automatically included in my reply. It used to be included with greater than signs in the first column. My email program is Netscape Messenger v4.72.  I looked at the source of the email message. It was from "X-Mailer: AOL 6.0 for Windows US sub 10502".  AOL now sends the message in two different formats, plain text and HTML, both included in a single message. Messenger displays the HTML version. Specifically, the text version is indicated by "Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII". The HTML version is indicated by "Content-Type: text/html; charset=US-ASCII".  March 17, 2001. 

AOL 6 Cripples Some Computers  PC World Magazine March 2001 issue. Many AOL members have reported a slew of problems like these after upgrading.

What People Say About AOL6. Uh-Oh. December 7, 2000. The Washington Post. Leslie Walker. Quoting from the article: 
"... I recently helped a friend install AOL on her computer only to encounter technical glitches I could not solve. ... Based on my admittedly unscientific sampling of AOL 6.0 users, as well as complaints logged by the help centers of competing Internet service providers, anyone upgrading to AOL's latest software should not be surprised to encounter problems .... today's complex AOL software is not the same easy-to-use Internet-on-training-wheels that got the Dulles media giant where it is now. AOL 6.0 ... has bugs. Plenty of them.

The same story also appears on the web site.  

Fred Langa in his newsletter on December 7, 2000 said: 
In this week's "Explorer" column, I recount how AOL6 took my perfectly good, secure, five-element networking setup and changed it to an INsecure 16-element networking setup. Worse, it installed an unusual (VPN--virtual private networking) technology for reasons unknown and unexplained. Worst of all, AOL made no mention of any of these changes: I only found them because I went looking for them. My guess is that most users never would even notice that AOL had made major -- and potentially very unsafe -- modifications to their networking setup. Also, in that column, I'll show you how AOL insists on setting up a VPN (Virtual private networking) connection that potentially gives AOL access to your files and to other computers on your LAN (if you're on a LAN). 

Fred Langa in his newsletter on December 4, 2000 said: 
AOL6 makes an almost unbelievable number of unnecessary and even dangerous changes to your system's networking setup--- some of them so bizarre even AOL's own support technicians are at a loss as to explain what's going on. (I know: I called them.). At best, AOL6's changes are likely to make your system less stable; at worst, AOL6 may render your system wide-open to hackers, crackers, and other online miscreants.
His newsletter is a summary of an article he wrote called "Do AOL6 and MSN Explorer Destabilize Your System?" in Windows Magazine. 

The web browser no longer has a customizable "Home Page" button.  

Upgrading from AOL5 to AOL6 does not upgrade your web browser. On a Win95 machine running AOL6, the IE version was 5.00.2314.1003IS which is quite old (as of November 2000 when this was written). 

See above for a gripe about email changes in version 6. 

I had a CD-ROM from AOL. The box it came in said it was AOL version 6. The CD itself said it was AOL version 6. I looked at the readme file on the CD and it discussed issues with AOL version 6. Nonetheless, the CD had AOL version 5 software on it!  I installed the software on a Windows 2000 SP1 machine that already had AOL v5 installed. It wanted to install itself into a directory called "AOL version 5.0a" or something close to this. That should have been a clue. It installed correctly and I ended up with two copies of AOL 5. The only thing that went well was the un-install. The AOL uninstall program found both copies of AOL v5 on the machine and correctly un-installed only the one I told it to, leaving the original copy of AOL v5. Then I went to browse the CD-ROM again. There were very few files there. According to Windows 2000 there were hundreds of megabytes of data on the CD-ROM. Turns out that AOL hides almost all the directories. On this machine, Windows explorer was set up with the default value of not showing hidden or system files. Had I seen those hidden directories beforehand, when I was browsing for the readme file, it would have been obvious from the directory names that the software was for version 5.   February 16, 2001

If you use America Online 6 under a system that was upgraded to Windows XP, you are only allowed to log in three times. Each time it prompts you to upgrade to AOL 7 because v6 is not fully compatible with Windows XP. AOL 7 is a 34 meg download. This problem does not occur on computers with XP was pre-installed.  AOL, Microsoft Thwart Users November 25, 2001. (added April 2002)

Installing AOL Version 5

January 18, 2000. Fred Langa wrote in Windows Magazine about his experience installing AOL version 5 software. Its frightening. He did a very controlled installation on a Windows 98 SE machine that had no prior versions of AOL software. He called the software installation "incredibly sloppy." Below are some other quotes from the article: 

CNN carried a story February 7, 2000 that a German trade group warned ISP customers against installing AOL v5 software. They called AOL v5 "crash-prone" and noted that many German ISP customers have been complaining about it. CNN quotes the group "that AOL 5.0 software interferes with other programs installed on a computer, making it difficult, if not impossible, to establish online connections using software from other service providers. In many cases, the entire network functions of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows have been destroyed" 

September, 2000. I installed AOL version 5 on a Windows 98 computer that already had AOL version 4. The version 5 software said that it found a new modem. There was no new modem. It did not use the existing modem definitions from the version 4 software, but instead started all over again trying to figure out which modem the computer was using.  

September 29, 2000. Business Week Magazine answers the burning question:  I installed AOL 5.0, and now it wants to dial AOL every time I start my computer. How do I make it stop? 

Installing AOL Version 6

January 5, 2002. Installing under Windows 98 SE. 

There is no mention of the necessary system requirements. Neither during the install process nor in the readme file on the AOL CD. 

Current AOL members installing the AOL software on a new computer for the first time are given three choices for the type of installation. None of these choices is for installing a new copy of AOL on a computer that had no previous copy of the AOL software. I found the choices confusing and used a best guess of "Add your existing AOL account to this computer". 

As part of the install process, you tell AOL your area code and it returns a list of local access numbers in your area code. Fine. However, when dialing these numbers it defaults to dialing the area code. In my experience, this is always wrong. If you need to dial an area code, it always has to be preceded by a "1", but the default is not to dial the "1" and to dial the area code. I had to manually edit the profile of each local access number so that it would just dial the number and not the area code. 

There is no option to turn off the horrible squeaking noises made by the modem while dialing. Those of us using a real ISP can go to the Modems applet in the control panel and easily adjust the modem speaker volume or turn it off altogether. AOL v6 ignores this setting. After installing version 6, I tried my best to find some setting to quiet the modem while it's dialing. There doesn't seem to be one. I know enough about modems that if AOL offered the option to input a customized modem init string, I could construct one that told the modem to be quiet. I'm pretty sure that older versions of AOL allowed you to do this. Version 6 does not. 

To avoid the horrible squeaking noises, you have to either turn off the computer speakers or use Windows software to adjust the speaker volume before dialing. Then of course, after you've dialed you have to enable the volume again or else you won't hear the whether you've got mail or not. 

On two Windows 98 machines, each with internal V90 modems, the AOL software connected to AOL at only 28.8. Perhaps the automatic modem detection leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps their local access numbers are not really V90. Each machine can connect at V90 speeds when using a real ISP and the machines were in different area codes.  

They Hate AOL

Their customers hate AOL according to survey after survey after survey. 

Survey: Apple, Dell cause least consumer frustration USA Today. July 11, 2002. Quoting from the article: "Among Internet service providers ... as was the case in other surveys, the world's largest Internet service provider, America Online, fared worst, with customers frustrated by its high price and unreliable connections." 

Poll exposes cracks in AOL's armor. Reuters. About 40 percent of AOL customers said they were "clearly dissatisfied with the brand, service and customer support". The company that took the poll said it was the most overwhelmingly negative response to a company they have ever seen. May 21, 2002.

AOL is the least trusted company on the Internet according to a study by Gartner. Thirty seven percent of those surveyed claimed a high level of distrust for AOL; 29 percent expressed similar feelings for Microsoft. Gartner said that AOL received lower consumer satisfaction ratings than Microsoft, both as an Internet service provider (ISP) and an e-mail provider.  August 23, 2001.  BusinessWire  Reuters

America Online's Weakest Link  October 4, 2001. The top Internet access provider in the world has customer satisfaction issues that rival service providers could take advantage of—if you are willing to make customer service something more than lip service at your ISP. When it comes to customer service, AOL seems to employ a let-the-customer-be-damned attitude smacking of pride-filled arrogance. . .

PC World Magazine did a survey of Internet Service Providers October 5, 2000 (in the November 2000 issue). AOL did very poorly. Among the findings: AOL came in dead last in tests of the amount of data downloaded per second. Of all the ISPs, AOL also had the highest percentage of unhappy customers. 

Web sites: 
Many of these web sites are devoted to hating AOL. Perhaps it says something about the company that it could inspire so many people to hate it. Others may just be reporting on the happenings at AOL.

Yahoo has a list of web sites devoted to consumer opinion about AOL

Dawn McGatney runs a web site that reviews many ISPs, unlike the above sites, it is not devoted to AOL. She gave AOL a C-. Her additional opinions on AOL are at "What's Really Wrong with America Online?". Finally, she links to a l-o-n-g list of web sites devoted to hating AOL.


You've Got AOLTV
January 22, 2001.  Quoting from the article: "We took the new device for a spin, but found it wanting because of inexplicable setup glitches, slow performance, and navigational snafus that left our seasoned Internet junkies frustrated. The first two hours of the setup for this supposedly easy-to-install box were a sheer nightmare." 

Channel and Web Surfing 
January 18, 2001. The New York Times by David Pogue. The author likes the concept of AOL TV but says "...most of AOL's good ideas wound up lost in the circuitry of an overpriced, undertested product that gives mediocrity a bad name." In describing his experiences with AOL TV the author notes that it took three hours for a technically adept user to set it up. He called the keyboard awkward and noted that e-mail did not get to use the entire TV screen. He said "You feel as though you're reading it through the wrong end of a telescope." AOL TV users can not receive e-mail messages with attachments and if they get one, can not even read the body of the message. Finally, there is no address book for email and the AOL documentation warns that many web pages will not look good.  

Newly unveiled AOLTV is seriously flawed
November 18, 2000. San Jose Mercury News. by Mike Langberg. Quoting from the article: 
"It's stunning, and more than a little disappointing, to see how badly AOL has bungled the introduction of its first `Internet appliance,' a $249 box called AOLTV. AOL has made just about every mistake in the book: The monthly service fee for AOLTV is too high, installation can be nightmarish, the user interface is glaringly inconsistent, and I found at least one significant software bug." 

AOL Plus

AOL Plus DSL Equals Installation Hell 
March 14, 2001. AOL Plus is the AOL service over a DSL link for an additional $20 per month over the dial-up AOL fee. PC magazine tried it and had a bunch of problems. Quoting from their article: "...based on our rocky installation and given our level of experience, the company's assumption that the average AOL user can configure out this software and hardware is wishful thinking."  Among the problems PC Magazine reported: Laptops are not supported, Windows Me is not supported, Windows 2000 is not supported. Their DSL service was not turned on for weeks after the promised date. When their DSL service was turned on, it knocked out the regular phone service. The magazine also found that DSL speed was not constant, there were slowdowns when the service was busy. 

Someone I know has AOL Plus. As of May 2001, AOL was nagging their users to convert from AOL v5 to v6 because DSL was no longer going to be supported with v5. This person has tried many times to install AOL v6 and every time it causes drastic problems for the computer.  

Price Hikes

May 22, 2001. Dear AOL users: Toss the training wheels and save money! David Coursey, ZDnet AnchorDesk. AOL is about to increase the monthly cost to $23.90 making them the most expensive of the big consumer ISPs. Now that competition has dwindled, AOL can safely increase rates without too much fear of customer defection. If I had just a single Internet connection, it would not be AOL.

January 2, 2002. Higher access fee hits some AOL users. CNET By Jim Hu. America Online has quietly raised the price for people wishing to access AOL through their own Internet service (BYOA) from $10 to $15. The company did not promote the changes to the general public. The price increase affects new subscribers to BYOA since October 2001. Customers currently paying the lower rate will continue to do so. Currently about 1 million people subscribe to the BYOA plan.  


January 3, 2002. A security bug in AOL Instant Messenger can allow someone on the Internet to delete your files or gain control of your computer. The bug affects Windows users of the free AIM software available for download on the Web, not users of the instant-messaging function built into AOL's paid online service. Specifically, it affects AIM version 4.3 and later.  Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is how AOL handled it.  Matt Conover, a student at Utah State University who discovered the bug, reported it to AOL about a week ago by sending an e-mail to an address on AOL's Web site. When the company failed to respond, he went public about the problem. Very soon after the bad publicity started, the bug was fixed by AOL. Mr. Conover said: "The developers of a product with so many users should be much more cautious and avoid overbloating with a multitude of features they didn't have time to properly test in the first place."  There are an estimated 30 million AIM users. The fix does not require AIM users to download new software. AOL never mentioned the problem to it's customers. This story was covered in  ZDNet  and CNet's You can also read what Matt Conover had to say.   

AOL Instant Messenger is hacked. Salon Magazine. April 27, 2002. By David Cassel. At the same time as the AIM home page was boasting that a "Potential AIM Security Issue Resolved," three 17-year-olds were inserting pornographic images into America Online's widely used chat service. Crackers inserted pornographic images into "AIM Today" and vandalized content on at least four screens of the chat software. The "AIM Today" window was added in August 2001 to the latest versions of the AIM software. Anyone who clicked on the "entertainment" link on AIM Today, followed by a click on any of the following three links advertising the chance to "Meet New People" who wanted to discuss the categories of "Celebrities," "Soap Operas" or "Comedy," would pull up pages displaying pornography. 

AIM security hole still threatens users. ZDNet. May 6, 2002. AOL failed to properly fix a security hole in its AOL Instant Messenger application, leaving users vulnerable to a new way to exploit the same flaw. The bug allows malicious AIM users to execute any program on a vulnerable user's computer. 

AOL's Instant-Messaging Games Continue July 23, 2002. Dan Gillmor. AOL pretended for a long time to be in favor of letting their AIM service interact with competing instant messaging services. They finally came clean and said they do not want to interoperate.


The AOL software is brutally stupid and archaic when it comes to dealing with modems. I added a new modem to a Windows 98 computer and told Windows 98 about the modem (installed the driver). I used the modem to dial a normal ISP with Dialup Networking. Then I ran the AOL version 4 software and tried to tell it about the new modem. It should ask Windows 98 for modem definitions. It does not. Instead it maintains its own modem definitions completely separate and independent of the modems Windows 98 knows about. It tries to auto-detect the new modem or lets you manually chose a modem from a long list. This is just asking for problems. Considering how long Windows has been keeping track of modems and how long AOL has had their software, it is truly disgraceful that it does not use the modem definitions from the operating system. 

Its hard, if not impossible, to get your desired userid (they call them screen names). The New York Times wrote (September 7, 2000) that AOL has 23 million members. Each member could theoretically use 7 different screen names for a total of 161 million. Add to that, the screen names of dear departed AOL customers (they call them members) and the likelihood of getting your desired userid is pretty small. When people quit AOL their screen names are still reserved for a minimum of 6 months, but most likely for longer. 

AOL software (up to and including version 6) only tells you the connection speed of your dial-up modem connection for a couple seconds. The various releases of the Windows dialer also show you the connection speed any time you care to look.  July 29, 2001. 

AOL is not compatible with Windows 2000 (as of August 2000). They are working on AOL 5 for Windows 2000 and if you use AOL 4 and upgrade from Windows 95 or 98 to Windows 2000, you could experience networking problems. Microsoft has an AOL patch for Windows 2000. See article in the September 2000 issue of PC World. I have read that the 16 bit version of AOL4 will run under Windows 2000, but have not tried it myself. 

AOL is not compatible with Windows NT 4. The 32 bit version of AOL does not run under NT4, only the 16 bit Windows 3.1 version of AOL does. 
There is a bug using AOL from Windows ME, but this seems to be Microsoft's fault. Knowledge Base article on it is Q272016. 

AOL is not compatible with personal web sites built at (at least as of July 7,2000). Below is an excerpt from the welcome message that Homestead sends to new users. 

We have discovered that the customized browser associated with AOL does not fully support Homestead SiteBuilder. In order to access Homestead, please use your AOL account as your Internet connection but use a browser on your local computer (as opposed to AOL's browser) in order to see your account and your Web sites.

New computers with Windows 98 (and probably Windows Me also) have AOL setup files consuming large amounts of disk space. Check directory  c:\windows\options\cabs\ols for a sub-directory called AOL. You may find files called Aol40au.exe,  Aol40ca.exe,  Aol40uk.exe and  Aol40us.exe. Together they probably occupy about 23 megabytes of space. If you are not an AOL customer delete them. If you have already signed up with AOL, they can most likely be deleted. Even if you want to sign up with AOL for the first time, the latest software can be downloaded from the Internet or it is likely that newer software can be found on the ubiquitous AOL CDs. 

As far as I know, there is no way to move your AOL favorite places from one computer with AOL software to another computer with AOL software. I have read, however, that you can export your AOL favorite places with bookmarksync (I have not tried this) which should let you import them into a normal web browser. There is also no way to sort your favorite places (up to and including v5, I have not checked this out on v6).    

As everyone knows, when you double click on a file in Windows Explorer, the operating system starts the correct program to deal with the file. For example, files ending in "doc" cause Word to run and files ending in "txt" cause notepad to run. Files ending in "htm" or "html" cause a web browser to run (whichever is your default browser). On a computer with either AOL5 or AOL6 (and possible earlier versions too I don't know) double clicking on html files causes AOL to run. 

Consumer Reports Magazine. January 31, 2001 issue. Inside back cover. Selling It. They describe and picture an AOL CD-ROM that touts 500 Hours Free! However, the small print says "In a month, see back for details". On the back it said "see back for details". The opened the shrink-wrapping and found out that the 500 hours have to be "used within one month of initial sign-on". There are 744 hours in a 31 day month. If you sleep 8 hours a night that leaves 496 hours.  

Not content with the above, AOL one-upped themselves. Forget sleeping, they now offer 700 free hours during your first month as a customer. A month with 29 days, by the way, has only 696 hours in it. Someone else (I forget who) said it it's like getting 7,000 free miles from a rental car company for a one day rental.

A relative of mine is an AOL customer. She signed up for a free trial of a new feature that reads you your e-mail over the telephone. When the free trial was over, she called AOL on the phone to discontinue this feature (I think it was an extra $5 a month). There was confusion as to what was being cancelled. The AOL person on the phone did not just cancel the e-mail over the telephone feature, but instead cancelled the AOL service completely. Anyone can make a mistake, but.... The same person who cancelled the AOL service could not re-instate it. In fact no one at AOL could or would re-instate it. As my relative uses their AOL e-mail address for business, she was quite upset. Why would AOL not restore the account over the phone? Why would they turn away a customer? The main account was in her husbands name. A spouse can cancel an account but not re-instate it. I wonder if children can also cancel accounts? Eventually it got resolved, but it was a major pain in the neck that consumed a lot of time and many phone calls. February 2001. 

AOL Anti - Spam Effort Loses E - mail  March 19, 2001. The Associated Press. Reported by CNet, the New York Times and Hundreds of thousands of e-mails sent by EarthLink Inc. customers to America Online accounts were rejected and lost over a period spanning at least 10 days. No error indication was returned to the sender of the email messages. EarthLink complained that AOL had not assigned executives at a level high enough to resolve the trouble more quickly. The email is lost forever, AOL can not recover it. EarthLink estimates the number of messages as "in the hundreds of thousands." AOL said their systems worked correctly and declined to detail how many e-mails it blocked. 

Sweaty Scenes from the life of an AOL censor. March 21, 2001. This is an interesting FYI story, not a gripe. It is from the Village Voice, a newspaper in New York City. Quoting from the beginning of the article "We were supposed to monitor screen names and profiles for vulgar content at America Online. Four of us shared this position, warning members and even canceling their accounts for violating the company's Terms of Service (TOS). In AOL's campaign to keep the Web safe for suburbia, we stood as the first line of defense." It's an interesting article that ends with a difficult question. The author gets a phone call from a woman who "frantically" explains that "Her young son had been chatting online, and when she went to get him for dinner, she found his room empty. A last instant message was posted on the screen: "See you soon, can't wait." She begged me for the name and address of the person behind the dangling screen name." AOL rules did not allow giving out the real name and address of the person chatting with the child. They did not call the Police in the area where this person lived. This drove the author to quit.  

AOL Long Distance hit with slamming charges May 11, 2001 By Brian Livingston of CNet.  AOL Long Distance, a telephone service marketed by America Online, is the subject of an investigation by an agency that's received more than 1,000 complaints of improper credit card charges and unauthorized transferring, or "slamming," of long-distance customers. Since 1997, AOL's long-distance service has been provided by Talk America, a Virginia-based telecom company. 

AOL Time Warner refuses to run TV ads from Internet rivals.  June 13, 2001. Conditions for approval of the merger between America Online and Time Warner required that the companies not discriminate against their rivals. 

Is There Life After AOL?  June 21, 2001. Not a gripe article, just a discussion of AOL in the New York Times. However, it includes this quote "What surprises me is that so many people use AOL but no one seems to like it..." and mentions "problems that have dogged AOL for years, like spotty access and the pop-up advertising and junk e-mail that so many customers find annoying." 

Real Consumer Choice Has Been Early Victim In Battle of the Titans. August 2,2001. Walter Mossberg, Wall Street Journal. Walter gripes about Microsoft and AOL not doing what's best for consumers.

Sick and tired of getting bombarded AOL CDs? Check out the web site for No More AOL CDs. Their mission is "To make it clear to AOL a lot of people do not want and have never asked for their CDs. To stop the needless pollution of the environment due to distribution of unwanted materials." They hope to return a million AOL CDs back to AOL.  August 21, 2001.

Time Warner announced October 17, 2001 that they lost $996 million in the last quarter. That's roughly 11 million dollars a day or $461,000 every hour. A year earlier they only lost $902 million dollars in the same quarter. One analyst said "There are some issues at AOL."  In a CNet story on this the same day, it said that "analysts have begun raising flags about the future financial health" of AOL. Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget downgraded AOL Time Warner to "neutral" from "buy."

Pop-up ads: All internet users have to deal with pop-up ads. AOL users have twice the problem, they get pop-up ads from both AOL and from web sites not associated with AOL. Everyone can install software to get rid of the pop-up ads on the web in general. AOL users have to also configure the AOL software to get rid of the AOL pop-up ads. Walter Mossberg discussed this in his Mailbox column on December 27, 2001. He gives instructions for turning off the AOL pop-up ads using version 7 and notes that you have to re-do this every year and have to do it for every screen name.

January 6, 2002. There is a bug in ICQ. Security Focus has the technical details and walks you through the upgrade process.

Some Web sites hosted on America Online have been hit by outages, leaving their Webmasters unable to update, view or transfer files on their home pages. This problem has persisted for weeks. Quoting CNET " informal search on AOL Hometown resulted in blank pages or ones with "server busy" messages. Other links on the site were slow to load or served messages saying the page was not available."
AOL home page glitches irk users By Jim Hu CNET February 1, 2002
AOL Upgrade Causes Home Page Woes By Matt Berger, IDG News Service in PC World Magazine February 4, 2002
An individual frustrated AOL member trying to get AOL's attention has created a web page about this.

AOL Time Warner Merger Adds Up To Less Than the Sum of Its Parts. April 1, 2002. The Washington Post. By Jerry Knight. AOL Time Warner Inc. stock continues to sink in value. The biggest merger in corporate history looks to be the biggest blunder. Before the merger, the two companies were worth more than $300 billion. Today they are worth $105 billion, and there is every reason to suspect it could fall further. The company said it is going to take a $54 billion write-off to reflect the fact that AOL paid far more for Time Warner than that company's publishing, music, movie, television and cable businesses are worth today. The company's biggest advertiser is itself. The synergies claimed when the merger was announced are not there. 
Note: a couple stories in the news around April 15, 2002 or so, when the AOL Time Warner stock sank to around $19, said that the stock market was valuing the entire company based solely on the Time Warner component. In effect, the market valued AOL at zero. 

The the version of Internet Explorer that ships with AOL has no History button, which means you can't easily see what websites you (or your children) have recently visited. One solution is to use Another may be (I have not tested this) to use IE outside the scope of the AOL software. That is, minimize AOL and start IE on its own. (April 16, 2002)

Unable to staunch the flow of AOL subscribers defecting to competing cable concerns' new Internet services -- and unable to persuade those concerns to carry AOL on their lines -- America Online is rethinking its strategy of promoting high-speed Internet access nationwide. Bob Pittman told employees that the company must persuade customers to retain their dial-up subscriptions to AOL even though they may have signed up high-speed Net access from a cable or DSL firm. Unless AOL can stem the tide of defections, it could threaten the future of its business. Read: AOL struggles with broadband plan MSNBC via the Wall Street Journal on April 19, 2002. This story fails to mention that cable and DSL subscribers can continue to use AOL for less than the $24 a month dial-up users pay. AOL has a "bring your own access" plan (BYOA) that is $15 a month.

FYI: Microsoft has a new account-migration service that makes it easier for people to switch from America Online to its MSN Internet access service. Called TrueSwitch, it helps AOL users migrate their address books, calendars and archived e-mail to MSN. It can also cancel a user's AOL account and forward email sent to the old AOL account to the new MSN address for 30 days. To notify everyone of your new email address, it sends a message to everyone in your address-book. Stay with Microsoft for 3 months and get a $50 rebate. May 20, 2002.

FYI:  More of Bass's Top Tips for Better Computing by Steve Bass of PC World Magazine. Read about an easy, free way to speed up AOL.  AOL Speed is a small program that patches AOL and lets it make better use of its own cache. It supports AOL 4, 5, 6 and 7. June 28, 2002. 

AOL "cooked books" as bubble burst. By Andrew Orlowski July 18, 2002. The Register. AOL misrepresented its accounts in three quarterly periods as the 'New Economy' bubble was bursting, according to an investigation by the Washington Post. In October 2000, AOL's then President Bob Pittman deceived financial analysts and investors by saying he "didn't see" any drop-off in advertising revenue, although two weeks earlier he had been briefed about the fall, and its consequences for the business. 
Unconventional Transactions Boosted Sales. The Washington Post. By Alec Klein. July 18, 2002. The Washington Post reviewed hundreds of pages of confidential AOL documents and interviewed current and former company officials and their business partners.

   Page last updated:  August 10, 2002