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Commercial FTP: AOL and CIS

For people without access to a direct Internet connection, both the CompuServe Information Service (CIS) and America Online (AOL) have added graphical FTP capabilities through their client software. (For those unfamiliar with FTP, it stands for File Transfer Protocol and is the major way of transferring files on the Internet.) Unfortunately, although they are a godsend for those who don't have direct access and can't use MacTCP-based programs like Anarchie or Fetch, both CompuServe's and AOL's FTP services leave much to be desired. Of course, CompuServe now has PPP dialup access for its customers (see TidBITS-274), so CompuServe users with MacTCP and MacPPP can use the excellent Anarchie or Fetch programs for FTP. Rumor has it AOL may add some sort of direct Internet connection in the future as well.

FTP on America Online -- AOL was the first commercial service to offer FTP through a graphical client, and although the client is graphical and functional, it's not great. In a nutshell, AOL's FTP makes me feel like I'm wading through treacle; it's none too speedy, and using it requires a multitude of mouse clicks, windows, and dialogs, interspersed with seemingly interminable periods staring at a spinning beachball cursor. The actual file retrieval goes relatively quickly, but getting to that point takes too much effort. For instance, although AOL's FTP can handle most directories, dealing with a large directory requires clicking a More button one or more times in order to view the entire directory listing.

Another disadvantage of AOL's FTP system is its excessively hierarchical organization. When you go to keyword "FTP" you get a dialog allowing you to search for FTP sites (limited and almost useless in my experience), a list of help information, and a Go to FTP button. New users may want to see this dialog; unfortunately, experienced users are unable to skip it. Clicking on the Go to FTP button brings up a short list of Favorite Sites like <>, <> (for Windows users), and <>. If you don't want to access one of these, you must click an Other Site button in order to use a dialog that permits you enter the name of the FTP site you want. Ideally, AOL should provide a keyword that takes you directly to this dialog.

Although the Other Site dialog does not allow you to specify a directory to display, a useful shortcut lets you paste an FTP URL (such as you might copy out of TidBITS) that points at a directory, not a file (just lop off the filename if present), to go to a particular directory on a remote site. Once you find the desired file, you double-click it and get another dialog with information about the file, and another button to click before you actually start downloading. Chugging through these steps every time, even if you know exactly what you want, makes AOL's FTP feel sluggish.

AOL's FTP does have a couple of points in its favor. Although it overloads you with windows early on, it does open non-modal windows that you can leave open and switch between once you connect to a site, or you can switch to another application to do something else or check information. Even though you can only work in one window at a time, it's handy to be able to switch back to a different one easily. In contrast, CompuServe's single modal dialog complicates the process of moving back and forth in an FTP site.

If you retrieve a GIF file, AOL's FTP displays the file as you retrieve it, just as AOL does with its own files. AOL tries to keep original file names within the Mac's 31 characters - a refreshing feature after dealing with CIS's butchery of file names. And although AOL's option to search for file sites is limited, it's better than nothing (which is what CIS provides).

Perhaps most interesting is that AOL retrieves files to the AOL host from the remote FTP site before downloading them to your Mac. Thus, once a file starts downloading to your machine, you can abort the transfer and make it finish later during a FlashSession. This is a unique feature, and makes up in large part for AOL's somewhat clumsy interface. Of course, the seriously paranoid will note that such a technique could constitute more of a security breach than a straight FTP connection if you're transferring sensitive information.

FTP on CompuServe -- CIS's FTP client has an unusual modal interface (which requires CompuServe Information Manager) and has its own frustrating problems.

When you GO FTP, you see a single window that lists help files and offers access to CompuServe's internal File Finders (they search inside CIS, not the contents of FTP sites). This window also provides a button for Selected Popular Sites, a button for an almost identical List of Sites, and a button for accessing any specific site you wish. The huge and badly-designed modal dialog for selecting a particular site does allow you to explicitly specify a directory on the remote site. Although you will have to reconnect if you don't give a valid directory path, the ability to pick a specific directory can be a big timesaver, although it's clumsier than pasting in an FTP URL.

Once you sign on to a site, you're shown a modal dialog with any messages from the site (just like AOL), and clicking OK displays a single modal dialog that lists the available subdirectories of the current directory in the left pane, and the files in the current directory in the right pane. To move into a subdirectory, double-click it; to move out, click the Back button. Either way, both lists update to show the information for the current directory. Unlike most list dialogs on the Mac, each entry (a filename, frustratingly truncated if it's too long since the dialog is not resizable) has a checkbox next to it; to retrieve a file, select the checkbox and click Retrieve. A useful Filter button lets you use wildcards to view only certain files in a directory; all files ending in ".txt", for example.

Unlike AOL, you do all your work in this single modal dialog. Some (like me) may prefer the limited window clutter this technique results in, others may prefer the more confusing (if more flexible) set of multiple windows available via AOL's FTP client.

Unfortunately, the basic simplicity of the interface is marred by several major design flaws. For example, the way CIS FTP uses checkboxes to select the files to retrieve makes it look easy to retrieve a batch of files at once, but in practice it's not. If you select several files to download and click Retrieve, CIS FTP will ask you to save each file just before it downloads it, so you can't select a group of files and leave the computer unattended. In fact, because of its problem with file names, I find it less convenient to select a group of files than to download them one by one. The use of checkboxes may also erroneously imply to some that you can mark multiple files for downloading in different directories and then get them all at once.

Speaking of file names, CIS FTP handles file names with the elan of a lumberjack dancing "Swan Lake." First, it truncates all file names to the DOS standard of eight characters with a three character extension. Although this is understandable for DOS users, it is highly annoying for Mac users. When you consider that OS/2, Windows NT, and Windows 95 break the DOS straitjacket on file names, I call it unacceptable.

Even worse, if the file name has multiple periods, CIS FTP ignores everything between the first and last period. Therefore, a name like "ford.engine.gear.eps" would be truncated to "ford.eps" when downloaded. Multiple words separated by periods are a common convention in Internet file names. The way CIS FTP truncates file names will at best confuse; at worst, if you are retrieving two files with similar names, you could easily overwrite the first file with the second. Luckily, CIS FTP uses a Standard File dialog to save, so if you remember the name you can retype it correctly before saving.

CIS FTP also has some bugs with displaying files and subdirectories. If a directory list contains a number of subdirectories, CIS FTP will sometimes display some of the subdirectories in the list of files, where you cannot access them. Far worse, if you enter a directory that has no subdirectories, the subdirectory list will incorrectly retain the names from the previous directory. Similarly, if you enter a directory that has no files, the file list will incorrectly retain the file names from the previous directory.

Unlike AOL, CIS FTP does enable you to upload to FTP sites that allow you to do so; however, this feature is extremely error-prone, and worked rather sporadically in testing.

What About Searching? Neither AOL nor CIS provide an interface for doing Archie searches. Archie is a method of searching FTP sites for file names that match certain criteria; while far from perfect, it's one of the few games in town if you don't know where a particular file might live. The lack of an Archie client makes it difficult to use either AOL or CIS FTP unless you already have some idea where to look. Since both services are aimed at more novice users, it's surprising neither has set up an Archie server for internal use (much like AOL has done with a Veronica server for searching for Gopher sites).

And The Winner Is... Well, it's a bit of a toss-up. Both are better than nothing if you don't have a MacTCP connection to use Anarchie or Fetch, but both have flaws that hurt their usability. I can't recommend either as a preferred way to retrieve files but either will work in a pinch or if you have no other choices.


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