It's a sad state of affairs when the primary selling point of a new set of online software is "we won't get hacked like everybody else." But that's the way of the Windows world today.
America Online's new AOL 9.0 Security Edition release ties into that unpleasant fact, highlighting some existing security components, such as the firewall and spyware-detection tool it introduced over the past two summers, and adding a major new offering, a free subscription to McAfee's VirusScan software.
This update seems intended to burnish the Dulles-based online service's reputation as the crossing guard of the Internet. Having brought you online, AOL is saying, we're going to keep you safe from all the things you're worried about there. That is an eminently laudable goal.
But it's one that this release can't quite achieve.
First, AOL 9 SE's two most important defenses, the firewall and antivirus components, must be downloaded and installed separately. The spyware protection is built in, but it doesn't run automatically either. It's exceedingly easy to load this new AOL software without actually getting any of the advertised security updates.
A "Safety on My PC" panel on AOL 9 SE's sign-on window should, however, remind you to install these extras. This display concisely summarizes what kinds of protection you have or need. It's smart enough to check to see if you're already running a different firewall or antivirus program, although it doesn't report if that virus protection is up to date.
Loading either AOL 9's firewall or antivirus software takes just a few minutes. Make sure you're not typing any e-mail while the antivirus installer downloads; once it's ready, it will start its setup routine without further notice, kicking you off AOL in the process.
Both of these McAfee-developed utilities work well enough but aren't that smoothly integrated with AOL itself. For example, the first time McAfee Personal Firewall Express ran, I had to authorize each of AOL's background helper applications -- shouldn't this software already know they're legit?
Including an entire antivirus service with the cost of a subscription is a welcome development among online services. But it's not without precedent; AOL, along with such competitors as EarthLink and MSN, has scanned all incoming e-mail for viruses for years. The difference with McAfee VirusScan Online is that it can find and quarantine viruses that make their way onto your hard drive in other ways, such as downloads and data CDs.
AOL 9's spyware detector ran extremely slowly -- budget more than an hour for it to scan your PC -- and on two computers, it falsely identified the SideStep travel-search program as spyware. On a third, it claimed to have cleaned up a nasty infestation of spyware and adware that had afflicted the machine with a series of pop-up ads and messages, but after a restart 10 of these programs had returned. That may be because this AOL utility won't remove these parasites from your computer, it will only block them from running again.