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America Online Gets Wired

by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

That's an accurate, though misleading title. Wired Magazine has indeed opened a section on America Online, but more what I wanted to note was America Online's increased Internet access (keyword = internet). I wrote about their Usenet access in TidBITS #216, and since then America Online has added Gopher and WAIS access, although it's still not ideal or anywhere as good as TurboGopher or MacWAIS.

Gopher and WAIS Interfaces -- America Online presents Gopher menus in much the same way TurboGopher does, with new windows for each new area that you enter. Unfortunately, America Online doesn't have TurboGopher's clever multitasking capabilities, so when a window fills, you have to sit and watch it - there's nothing you can do until it finishes. Searching a WAIS source works much as it does in TurboGopher as well, so that you simply click on a search item in a list and enter a search term; no provisions are made for ranking details or use of relevance feedback.

America Online's implementation of the Gopher and WAIS interfaces leaves much to be desired. They kindly selected and organized various Gopher servers and WAIS sources into categories, but there are so few entries in each category that you wonder what they were thinking. Perhaps the reason behind the lists is that America Online won't show all the entries in a list - after 20 or so you get a More button that reveals more entries - this sometimes even appears when reading in a text window and in either place is irritating. Even finding the Home Gopher Server at the University of Minnesota took me some time, since I had to find a Gopher server that had a link to Other Gopher and Information Servers - there's no way of going directly to a specific Gopher server. Bookmarks aren't implemented, which isn't surprising since America Online could desperately use those elsewhere, but still doesn't have them. Veronica searching is simple only; every time I tried to add the "-t7" switch to a Veronica search (that switch finds only searchable items), the search failed. Error messages are useless; whereas TurboGopher and other Gopher clients tell you that the Veronica server is too busy or that you didn't connect to it, America Online just reports that an Internet error occurred (which is merely passing the buck - an error occurred, but it might have just been a bad search term or an overloaded Veronica server). You can't select which Veronica server to search, which could be a major problem in certain cases, since often only one will be available. To be charitable, it's possible that America Online somehow tries more than one Veronica server, but I doubt it.

Most seriously, you're limited to retrieving textual data from Gopher servers. Images (and other data types, I suspect) simply aren't displayed in the lists, and if you attempt to enter a folder containing only images, America Online says it can't do that. This is a serious limitation since Gopher servers are a popular way of making images available on the Internet, and with other Macintosh Gopher clients it's not a problem to retrieve them and have them automatically opened with something like the excellent JPEGView. Overall, I'm simply not impressed with America Online's efforts in this area - the access is there, but anyone who plans on making serious use of it should consider getting a real Internet account instead.

AOL Internet Connection -- Even more interesting than America Online's increased Internet services is the fact that you can now connect to America Online over the Internet if you have MacTCP-based Internet access, either through a network or SLIP or PPP. Of course, none of this does you any good if you don't have an America Online account already.

Needless to say, you can't just telnet into America Online using NCSA Telnet (I couldn't even easily figure out what the hostname on the Internet is). You need special software, and that software is available at:

ftp://ftp.aol.com/mac/TCP-for-Mac-AOL-2.1.sea

You can also get version 2.1 of the full America Online application there, which you need to use the Internet connection files, I suspect.

ftp://ftp.aol.com/mac/Install-AOL-v2.1.sea

Once you download and expand the self-extracting archive, you are left with three main files, a Telnet tool called TCPack (version 2.2.5b0), a file called TCP Connection, and another called TCPack. Drag the Telnet tool onto your System Folder so it can land in your Extensions folder and put the other two files in your Online Files folder inside the America Online folder. The instructions then recommend setting the preferred memory requirements for America Online's application up to 1,024K, after which you can launch America Online and from the Locality pop-up menu, choose TCP Connection.

The README file from <ftp.aol.com> stops there, but ever the curious one, I clicked on the Setup button. TCPack, a new item in the Connection File pop-up menu is selected, and clicking on the Configure button brings up the standard Communications Toolbox dialog that enables you to select from a pop-up menu of appropriate connection tools. I have both the MP Telnet tool that comes with MicroPhone Pro and the VersaTerm Telnet tool, so I never even bothered to try the TCPack 2.2.5b0 tool that comes with the package - I assume it works fine, but the README claims that it expires on 30-Jun-94, and I always seem to be bitten when beta programs expire on me. When configuring both tools (they both worked fine), it didn't seem to make any difference what host you selected - the America Online application apparently has that hard-coded somewhere.

Once you have everything configured correctly, just make sure you're properly connected to the Internet if you use SLIP or PPP, and then click on America Online's Sign On button. The login process proceeds normally, but since you've already made the connection to the Internet, it's quite a bit faster. After you're on, everything works pretty much as normal. I connect over a 14,400 bps SLIP connection, so the speed was not significantly different from the normal 9,600 bps modem connection I normally used with America Online. Windows seemed to open a little faster, but uploads took a bit longer. Overall, I found the reliability better with the Internet connection, but I've been having major trouble with America Online for the last few months.

I see several advantages to using the Internet access method over the normal modem connection. Many people may only have Internet access at work, so connecting from there is possible over the Internet but not over modem. In other cases, Internet access may be free or cheap, whereas the modem call could be expensive and error-prone. Also, because of the standard way Macintosh Internet programs work, you can use any number of them simultaneously, which simply isn't possible if one application hogs the modem, as is normal with America Online. Finally, I suppose this makes it easier for non-U.S. users to connect, although I don't know what America Online's feeling about that might be.

Disadvantages? There are a lot of access numbers for America Online around the U.S., certainly more than Internet access numbers, and if that's true in your area, there may be no reason to bother with the Internet access. I can't tell, but I haven't heard anything indicating that the Internet access will be cheaper than the normal modem access, which would be a shame, since America Online wouldn't have to pay SprintNet for providing the network. In fact, it makes sense for America Online to devote more resources to making the Internet access as good as possible, since it's probably cheaper for them to provide.