I forget the names of the country and the bar. But I still remember her exotic looks, the lilt of her accent, the way she could talk Linux or literature with equal fluency. But when I gave her my e-mail address, there was only one emotion churning behind those eyes: pure disgust.
That was when I learned that America Online is not sexy; my aol.com address exposed me as a member of the online proletariat. I never saw her again, my e-mails went unanswered, and it didn't help that her mail program didn't have that nifty AOL feature that reveals when (or if) your e-missive was opened by its recipient.
But after the initial sting, I decided I didn't care what she thought. I had signed up because AOL was intuitive to use and accessible worldwide. I could sign on using my name instead of the first 10 digits of pi. To date, about 18 million people in the United States have made the same judgment call and signed up with AOL, which on Oct. 5 officially released its new Version 5.0 software for Windows 95 and 98 (the company says "more information on a Macintosh version of AOL 5.0 will be available soon").
AOL tries to give the people what they want. So in 5.0, much ado is made of the new features added at users' requests, many of which streamline e-mail use. The number of possible screen names is expanded from four to seven. Plus, finally, mail for each screen name can be auto-downloaded without multiple dial-ups (saving hassle domestically and expensive connection fees abroad). In 5.0 the screen names themselves may contain up to 16 alphanumeric characters. This upgrade also ups the common-sense quotient by consolidating the "Channel Guide" page, the search window and the daily updates into a single "Welcome" screen. Thus, at sign-on all content and services are one click away.
Mobility is the big reason I originally signed on with AOL: In the days before browser-accessible e-mail accounts, AOL provided local access numbers around much of the globe. Version 5.0 removes the one major annoyance associated with that strength, the need to log on via a toll-free line to look up new phone numbers. Now that list is stored on your computer instead of a remote server--just enter your location and you're online. It's also easier to transfer bookmarks and e-mail address lists between computers.
The biggest ideas from in-house are electronic organizers for photos and appointments. Version 5.0 offers members a daily planner called "My Calendar." My sense is that mileage may vary. If I can't check my schedule on the train or walking to the coffee shop, it's not very useful to me, so I suspect after a few weeks of My Calendar I'd either revert to a bound paper planner or convert to a Palm organizer. The other addition is "You've Got Pictures," offered in partnership with Kodak. It's an attempted end run around scanners and digital cameras that allows your local film developer to deliver your snapshots electronically, just like e-mail. The jury remains out on its utility and on how well this will work if all 18 million of my fellow AOL citizens elect to try it out at once.
But that assumes they can all get AOL 5.0 to function. A couple weeks ago, Fast Forward asked AOL users to write in and share their findings on the downloadable version of 5.0. Those who replied bore grim news. For instance, one reader was forced to delete the entire two-hour download and reinstall Windows. Ouch. Those respondents also report that AOL tech support has been pretty clueless about 5.0.
I loaded the upgrade from a CD-ROM. On my Dell desktop, the program works smoothly but for this occasional mysterious error message: "We are sorry, but access to AOL is not available from this method." A second sign-on attempt generally gets the desired results.
After loading 5.0 onto my Toshiba laptop, I hit a program error during the initial sign-on process and had to reboot. A second attempt got me online, but once I signed off my machine crashed again. After a third attempt, everything seemed to work fine. Until attempt number four, in which the program simply froze my computer. Unfortunately, an e-mail to the "V.I.P." tech-support address given out to reviewers has yet to generate a response.
There are other minor quibbles. Though I chose not to set AOL as my default mail and Internet program during install, the accompanying Internet Explorer 5.0 arrogantly changed my browser default anyway. And why is AOL just now getting around to adding signature files--those little who-I-am taglines--to its e-mail tool?
At least the company did eventually listen to the complaints and suggestions of its users. And that may be the good part of being the Ugly American Online--AOL's frenzy to give the people what they want should inspire a fix to the installation problems and Internet personality quirks that overshadow an otherwise sensibly streamlined program.