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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE
/ DANIEL AKST

AOL Still Has Foresight, a Future

August 05, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Enough about the Internet. Millions of Americans, and a good many readers of this column, use America Online, and so this week I spent time on AOL in an attempt to find out what's new, and to investigate whether it can avoid being subsumed someday by the juggernaut of the World Wide Web.

In answer to the first question, several things are new, most of them good. The most important innovation, in my book, has to do with price. America Online has always been too expensive, but the service recently began offering a special rate of $19.95 a month for 20 hours, plus $2.95 for additional hours. This represents a 63% price cut in the cost of 20 hours under the traditional AOL pricing plan ($9.95 a month for five hours and $2.95 for additional hours). Under that plan, 20 hours would have cost a whopping $54.20.

Still, it's amazing how fast online charges can mount, so let's all hope for lower hourly prices in the future. Meanwhile, regular users of AOL should use the Flash Sessions feature, which lets you quickly download electronic mail, read and respond to it offline and log back on for just a minute or two to upload outgoing messages.

The other big recent innovation at America Online is version 3.0 of the company's software (see accompanying box). Besides looking slick, version 3.0 offers a number of improvements over earlier releases. But these gains aren't as significant as the company's never-ending resourcefulness in giving people what they want by stocking AOL with attractive content. AOL seems to understand current--and potential--users of online services better than anyone else, more about which later. A Macintosh version of 3.0 should be available in the fall.

Version 3.0 is worth downloading for several reasons. One of the best is that the Web browser built into the software is faster than the old one and supports various new developments in the creation of Web pages. Coupled with AOL's bulk-pricing scheme, it makes AOL a plausible alternative as an Internet service provider. The browser also supports the Secure Sockets Layer protocol, meaning online transactions, including credit card payments, can be conducted with a reasonable degree of security.

Another plus is that AOL 3.0 comes with a built-in winsock. A winsock (winsock.dll, to be exact) is a program used by computers running Microsoft Windows that enables the computer to act as if it were part of the Internet, instead of merely being connected to it by phone line and modem.

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Thus, in theory at least, you could connect to AOL and then run any of a variety of third-party "winsock applications," including Netscape Navigator. (AOL's own browser still doesn't support plug-ins or Java applets, meaning you won't see a lot of the dancing Web pages suffered--er, that is, enjoyed--by users of Netscape Navigator.) I say "in theory" because there are several potential problems.

For instance, if your system is littered with winsocks installed by other programs, you'll have to rename them (winsock.1, winsock.2, etc.) before AOL's winsock.dll will work. Don't delete the old winsocks until you're positive they aren't needed by other Internet programs that you might be using.

Also, AOL's winsock will only work with Windows 3.1 applications, meaning Windows 95 users will have to use Windows 3.1 versions of their Internet applications in order for them to run with AOL's winsock. Nevertheless, I got this to work without too much suffering, and it's a nice feature. AOL also comes with easy-to-use FTP, telnet (finally) and Usenet newsreader applications built in. The keyword for all this is INTERNET.

AOL 3.0 also offers improved electronic mail. You can write e-mail in fancy colors, in different font sizes and with embedded hyperlinks to Web pages and AOL departments. Although I fear these new features will mainly be of use to junk-mailers, you might find them worth a try for sending birthday greetings or rough-and-ready newsletters with headlines, hot links to relevant Web sites and so forth. Note, however, that while e-mail sent to other AOL users will display all your handiwork, e-mail sent to someone over the Internet will appear as regular text (but without any problems, as far as I can tell).

Another nice thing about AOL 3.0 is the end of those annoying art downloads, with the blue bars showing their creeping progress. AOL now acts more like the Web, with place holders for images that haven't downloaded yet. AOL version 3.0 also makes it a little easier to search out things on the service, which is important when content is expanding rapidly.

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Speaking of content, AOL continues to shine, although it often seems a shallow shine.

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