I’m out of my office right now, at beautiful Sanibel Island, Florida, and while skipping out on snow and the last vestiges of Colorado winter sound nice, being unable to keep tabs on my server and email is too risky for me. No worries, though, because I use Verizon‘s “3G” (we cellphone folks call it their ‘1x’ network, though) and it works just fine, certainly for email.
Except here on Sanibel Island. For reasons that are not clear to me, the cellular service here is remarkably spotty — move one foot to the left and I have a “five bar” signal, but one foot to the right and I have no signal at all — which means that the 3G network is pretty much unusable.
So, instead, I decided I’d try America Online, since they are perpetually advertising their 30-45 day free trial periods and they’re a fully functional ISP if you know how to sidestep things…
Now, I’ve had an AOL account for years and years because my folks use one of the alternative screen names as their main Internet account. It allows me to pay for their Internet access without having to fuss with transferring bills or any special arrangements. And with their 5 hours/month on an annual payment schedule, it’s darn cheap. But use AOL? Haven’t done that in years.
So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I download the latest AOL software from their Web site and started it up. Through years of fine-tuning, the AOL software installs easily, quickly, and with useful explanations and zero fuss. I didn’t have to adjust any control panels, worry about what kind of modem I had, nada. Just needed a phone cord plugged in.
More impressive was their automatic customization feature. Log in for the very first time and there’s a message from someone in customer service (who I imagine isn’t a real person but a fictitious name created for this purpose) welcoming you to AOL and offering tips on how to get the most out of the service. Not a pointer to a help area, but a chatty, seemingly personal message that was reasonably fun to read, and ended with the following postscript:
“Coming Soon: Look in your mailbox next time you sign on for tips on how to improve your connection to the AOL service.”
That’s smart personalization and a really good way to welcome someone to an online service. Don’t just dump a lot of information on them, but stage the material, offering a simple “here’s a good tip for you” message with a valid, legit return address that goes to customer service, then send them another message a few days down the road.
Well done AOL.
“Ah, but Dave, in case you haven’t noticed, AOL is becoming increasingly irrelevant and is losing out to the Internet at large!”
That’s absolutely true. While America Online has invested millions in creating a seamless, attractive and simple environment for working online, the fact is that no monolithic application can compare to individual apps that interoperate. Firefox and, heck, even Internet Explorer are far superior Web browsers to what’s included with AOL’s suite, and their email system is terribly featureless when compared to even apps included with modern OSes like Apple Mail and free downloads like Thunderbird.
The biggest obstacle that AOL faces is the simple fact that you can ‘gussy up’ the Internet and hide it from people for only so long. Eventually, even if it’s rough and tumble and occasionally unrefined, the “real” Internet is always going to be more compelling than the sanitized version.
And yet… it’s a big company that clearly understands customer service, smart customer interaction, and its own customer base. So what’s AOL thinking and how are they spending their money?
One obvious strategic move: they recognize Window’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities to spyware and viruses as an opportunity, and as with any nimble company, they’re reinventing themselves to take maximum advantage of prevailing conditions in the market. Indeed, the very welcome message I received reinforces this, with its bullet list of AOL features:
- Safety & Security: Your membership gives you better control over your online safety and security with these new and improved features. AOL Keyword: Safety & Security
- Spam Blocking and Web Pop-Up Controls: The AOL service now blocks over 1 billion unwanted e-mails every day. Plus, now you can block most pop-ups and pop-unders that appear while exploring the Web. AOL Keyword: Spam
- Virus Protection: AOL stops known viruses from infecting your e-mail and attachments automatically. AOL Keyword: AOL Anti-Virus Center
- AOL Guardian: E-Mail “report cards” keep you updated on your child’s online activities. AOL Keyword: AOL Guardian
- Computer Check-Up: This feature diagnoses and automatically repairs AOL performance problems such as connection and speed issues. AOL Keyword: Computer Check-Up
With the exception of AOL Guardian, I would say that all of these features are aimed at addressing weaknesses in the modern Internet and, of course, Microsoft Windows.
Oh, before I forget: if you want to use AOL as your ISP, but skip using their software, just stay logged into the AOL system and simply launch your other apps. You can easily use other Web browsers (I’m using Safari) and your favorite email program (I use Microsoft Entourage). The only glitch: it appears that the AOL system has “problems” resolving outbound SMTP connections, which I sidestepped by using an SSH tunnel (I outline how to use SSH tunnels on the Mac, at least, at Ask Dave Taylor).
Finally, don’t freak out. I’m not going to convert to the cult of AOL, such as it is. I have a high speed network connection in my office and that works just fine without having to worry about any odd limitations or be exposed to AOL’s interpretation of what’s hot or important news. I just wanted to share my impressions of a company that’s fighting a tough battle and doing some very interesting things along the way.