America Online has come out with a major new software release, one that may change how millions of people experience the Internet.
Not too long ago, that sentence could only have meant one thing: AOL had just upgraded the program used by subscribers to connect to the popular online service. But about 2 million AOL customers have been saying "Goodbye!" to the service each year, while its increasingly stale flagship application hasn't seen a major update since mid-2003. These days, most people identify AOL with a different program, AOL Instant Messenger -- which is the subject of AOL's latest update.
While AOL the online service shows few signs of arresting its long decline, AOL the instant-messaging provider continues to own the market. And why not? Other services, such as MSN and Yahoo's, may offer more features, but AOL is the one network where you can count on finding almost everybody.
AOL has not hesitated to take advantage of AIM's privileged position, turning this free program into a conduit for ads and links to other AOL products and services. Computing neatniks have had to get in the habit of following AIM around with a vacuum cleaner, deleting the irrelevant Start Menu links, desktop icons and system-tray shortcuts deposited by each new version.
AOL could afford to be that pushy because AIM was so well-known and -- unlike other developers' simpler, AIM-compatible applications -- it supported every feature of AOL's service.
With the new AIM Triton (free for Windows 2000 and XP at www.aim.com), however, that's changed. Triton is more marketing-driven than ever, but this version's audio-chat feature shuts out one popular AIM-compatible program, Apple's iChat AV, and it doesn't allow video-conferencing with any other AIM software.
More ads, less compatible: Does that sound appealing?
The promotional onslaught begins when you run Triton's installer. In addition to putting a copy of AIM on your computer, this setup routine will also add a new Web browser, AOL Explorer, and Plaxo address book-sharing software -- and unless you choose otherwise, it will also add an AOL toolbar to your copy of Internet Explorer, then change IE's home page to AOL.com. You'll also get a small anti-spyware utility in the bargain.
At the end of this installation (and after seven advisories from Microsoft's Anti-Spyware utility about Triton's changes to Windows' Internet and system settings), AOL Explorer will launch alongside Triton, then ask if it should become your everyday browser.
Don't bother. AOL Explorer, first bundled with Triton's predecessor AIM 5.9, is basically a copy of Internet Explorer that implements tabbed browsing with a couple of thoughtful enhancements. But it suffers from the same basic security flaws as IE itself.
Instead of being a simple IM upgrade, Triton acts like it has to be an operating-system update as well. (You'd think AOL's own programmers would stop making so much work for themselves.) Fortunately, you can decline the worst of these add-ons by not hitting the Enter key every time Triton's setup screens ask you a question -- the default choice is always to further AOL-ify your computer.
The free Plaxo contacts-management software, however, deserves a look. It can take your address book -- whether stored in Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express mail programs or on Yahoo and Hotmail's Web-mail sites -- and put it online. You can view and edit this Internet-hosted "Universal Address Book" from any other copy of Triton.
You and selected Plaxo-using friends can also update each others' address books automatically with each move. But Plaxo's usual setting of allowing other Plaxo users to view your work contact info can lead to you getting unwanted commercial pitches.
This implementation of Plaxo leaves out one helpful feature. If you haven't already added people's AIM accounts to their address-book entries, Triton won't try to match the two up. (A separate AOL download, AIM Sync, can do that with Outlook contacts lists.)
Considered apart from its baggage, Triton adds little to the IM experience. It's geared largely toward the most frequent users of AIM: Your buddy list can now include up to 500 people, whom you can quickly find by typing each one's username. Triton also groups multiple active chats in one window, letting you flip from one to the next by clicking on tabbed dividers.
Some of these ideas surfaced in other IM programs long ago. Many other smart ideas implemented by competitors -- for example, allowing you to set your away status with a few clicks on a system-tray icon, indicating a contact's audio and video compatibility right in the buddy list, letting users see more than two lines of text in a chat window's input area, or real-time spell checking -- escaped AOL's attention.
Triton even removes a popular feature of earlier AIM versions, the ability to use the image of your choice as your buddy-list icon. In Triton, you can only choose from a gallery of clip art on AOL's site, and using any of those pictures will cost you -- $1.95 a month or $9.95 a year. The same fees apply to the backgrounds, wallpaper and smileys offered at AOL's Expressions site.
Text chats between Triton, earlier AIM releases and two third-party programs -- iChat AV, released with AOL's support, and the independently developed, open-source Gaim -- went fine. But Triton makes enough changes to voice chatting to prevent any audio exchanges with iChat AV, and its new video software doesn't work with any other AIM-compatible software.
Triton's error message in those cases -- "An unknown failure occurred" -- does nothing to explain matters. These compatibility problems also go unmentioned on the AIM Web site and Triton's help file. The only warning is a "beta" label in Triton's video window -- a status further demonstrated by malfunctions like the "You do not have a camera" alert that appeared next to a thumbnail preview of the attached webcam's picture.
Triton's buddy-list window now occupies a full column of your screen; if you plan on running this next to Google Desktop's sidebar, you'd better upgrade to a widescreen monitor. The bottom of this window provides access to AOL's free Internet radio service, including 24 XM Satellite Radio channels, while the top displays picture and video ads.
The video ads are extraordinarily annoying; when you move the cursor over them, even when Triton is running in the background, they roughly quadruple in size and push themselves on top of every other window until you steer the cursor away from the video.
An application that you find yourself actively running away from onscreen isn't something you should rush to download. The old AIM 5.9 version is still available; if you must stick with AOL's software, that's the version to use until Triton's video incompatibility gets fixed.
Fortunately, you don't have to run AIM to use the AIM network. For basic text chats and file transfers, non-AOL programs such as Gaim, Trillian and iChat provide the same utility without any of the ads.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.