Stuart Cheshire, January 1997.

This Christmas I tried to set up my parents and sister in England with some form of electronic mail so that we'd be able to keep in touch better.

I decided AOL would be the right choice for relative novices. What a nightmare! Here's what happened:

I decided to give my parents my old PowerBook Duo 270c. I reformatted the hard disk, installed a fresh vanilla copy of System 7.5.5 on it, and went to the AOL web site to get their latest software (at that time "AOL 3.0 Preview 2").

I installed "AOL 3.0 Preview 2" and double clicked it. All seemed fine. I called the 800 number in England to find out the correct local access number to use, entered all the information, and tried to sign-on, but nothing happened. The program just hung. It simply sent no data down the serial port to the modem. I know the modem was correctly connected because it worked fine with other terminal software I tried (like Termulator) and I was able to dial numbers and connect without any problem. I know the modem was plugged into the right serial port because the Duo only has one serial port. After a few hours I gave up and sent back to the Web site. After all, this was "Preview 2" -- another way of saying "software that doesn't work".

I downloaded and installed the other version of the software that was there -- version 2.7. That was even better. That one crashed before it even got as far as displaying it's main window.

I called AOL's technical support number, and they told me that they know AOL doesn't work with Apple's standard System Software. They said they thought AOL probably conflicts with one of the standard System Extensions, but they didn't know which one. They suggested that I try turning them all off one by one until I found which one AOL was conflicting with. I was frankly amazed that that was the best they could offer by way of help. I asked them why they couldn't actually try testing their software themselves and finding out why it didn't work, and their answer was that there are far too many versions of System 7 for them to actually try running AOL on the current version.

Given that lack of help I spent half an hour disabling Extensions one-by-one. Finally I found that AOL 2.7 won't run with Apple Guide, which is a little ironic. I gave my parents a Mac because it's easy to use. I gave them AOL because it's (supposed to be) easy to use. To make it work, I had to disable Apple Guide, so now they have no on-screen help, which is probably exactly what new computer users need most.

Having done this, I was finally able to sign-on. What stellar software! I clicked on "Discover AOL". It told me to "Download the latest version of the Web Browser and install it." but it gave me no information where to find it. (After many hours of searching I never did find it. I suspect the particular AOL mainframe we were connected to in England doesn't even have it.)

When I selected "Online Clock" from the menu to find out how much time I had used, it said: "Please see Keyword BILLING", but when I entered "BILLING" in the Keyword dialog box, it said "The keyword you entered is invalid".

In the Member Services window I found an item "Account Management and Billing" so I double-clicked it -- AOL said "Internal Error".

Still, we'd got my parents connected, just about, and they could send and receive e-mail.

The next job was to get my sister set up. She has an old Mac SE with 4MB RAM (which was a lot for those days -- that was when, on an IBM PC, 640K was considered needlessly extravagant). Clearly AOL 3.0 was not going to run on that (or on anything, given my previous experience) so I installed AOL 2.7. When I double-clicked it, it immediately crashed with an "Odd-dddress" System error -- a bug that's a pretty standard newbie programming bug, but this is the first time I've seen it in a shipping commercial product.

I called AOL's technical support again. This time they were much better informed. They were quite certain that AOL won't run on a Mac SE any more. Apparently version 2.0 did, but they've lost that software and can't find any copies.

So here's what we've learned about AOL:

  1. AOL 3.0 doesn't work on a Duo running System 7.5.5.
  2. AOL 2.7 is known not to work on System 7.5.5.
  3. AOL technical support knows it doesn't work, but doesn't know why.
  4. AOL is too busy to test their software.
  5. AOL once had a version that worked on the Mac SE, but they lost it.
  6. AOL, apparently, doesn't keep backups.

If anyone out there knows what version of AOL will run on a Mac SE, I'd be most grateful if you would let me know. Maybe I'll even be able to find one of the old free floppy disks they used to send out all the time.

James Egelhof has a whole Web site dedicated to his criticisms of AOL:

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