For many people, the easiest way of accessing the Internet, although a limited one, is to use a commercial online service, such as CompuServe, America Online, or eWorld. The commercial online services provide their own fee-based services such as email, computer and non-computer related discussions, file libraries, and databases of information. And, just to ward off this question right away, no, you cannot access files or databases on a commercial service via a normal Internet account. If you could, then the commercial service couldn't squeeze any nickels from you, and what fun would that be?
Note: You can access some of the commercial services over the Internet instead of over a modem, but this still requires you to have an account on that service.
Commercial services offer two main advantages over finding a real Internet access provider. First, because they have deals with international commercial network carriers such as SprintNet, finding a local phone number is usually easier. But, you pay for that easier access, usually with the connect-time fee for the commercial service. Second, the commercial services find it easier to offer commercial-quality information, because they can charge users to access that information and then pay the information provider. Hence you find, for example, full-text databases of computer magazines on CompuServe, but you pay extra for any searches in those databases, with the revenue going to the magazine publishers. Remember, to paraphrase the Bard, "All the world's a marketing scheme."
All the commercial services have Internet email gateways, which means that you can use these services to send and receive Internet email. They also have started to add other Internet services, like Usenet news, FTP, Telnet, and Gopher. Some place additional restrictions on email, such as limiting the size of files you can receive, or charging extra for Internet email (as opposed to internal email on that service).
Note: Absolutely none of the commercial online services properly handle quoting for email. When offering quoting at all, they, like AppleLink, append the original letter to your reply, which makes it difficult to refer to different parts of the original in context. If you use any of these services and aren't happy with the lack of decent facilities, try Rick Holzgrafe's SignatureQuote (see capsule review later in the chapter).
In this chapter, I concentrate on the major commercial services for Macintosh users -- America Online, CompuServe, and eWorld -- and briefly look at some other, less-commonly used services -- AppleLink, BIX, Delphi, GEnie, Outland, and Prodigy. Keep in mind that rates change frequently on these services, to accommodate market pressures and the marketing whim of the day, so the rates I give throughout may not always be accurate.
Having an account on one of the commercial services can be a good way to ease into the Internet because you can send and receive email. Being able to send and receive email enables you to request automated information from the major Internet providers, which makes finding a local connection much easier. In addition, many of the online services provide decent graphical interfaces that are easier to use than character-based interfaces.
Before I get into specifics, take a look at Table 12.1 which summarizes the syntax for sending email between the Internet and many of the commercial online services, including some not mentioned here because they're not used by Mac users or because they're really ugly or expensive.
Table 12.1: Commercial Online Service Addressing* Service To the Internet From the Internet America Online email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org AppleLink email@example.com@internet# firstname.lastname@example.org BIX email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org CompuServe >INTERNET:email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Delphi email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org eWorld email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org GEnie email@example.com@inet# firstname.lastname@example.org MCI Mail email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Prodigy email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
*Note: none of these are real addresses -- substitute the username for "user" and the full domain name for "internet.com" as in email@example.com.
America Online (see figure 12.1), commonly known as AOL, has been around only since 1989 but has always boasted one of the best graphical interfaces for browsing files and sending email. The way its software handles discussions, however, leaves much to be desired.
Figure 12.1: America Online Welcome Window, set for TCP Connection.
In the spring of 1992, AOL opened an Internet gateway, and its popularity grew quickly. In early 1994, AOL added additional Internet services, including access to Usenet newsgroups and limited access to some Gopher and WAIS servers. In the summer of 1994, AOL added TCP/IP connections that enable you to connect to AOL over an Internet connection and run the America Online software at the same time as other MacTCP-based programs. Connecting to AOL via the Internet requires version 2.5.1 or later of the America Online software.
Note: The term "America Online" refers to both the service and to the special software they provide for accessing the service. Sorry if it's confusing.
There are rumors afoot as I write this that America Online will be creating some sort of ancillary Internet access service, although no details are available. In late 1994, AOL spent $35 million on a company called ANS (Advanced Network & Services), the company that had managed and operated the NSFnet Backbone Service since 1990. The ANS backbone network is among the largest and fastest public data networks. AOL's acquisition of ANS followed on the heels of two other Internet-related acquisitions, BookLink Technologies and NaviSoft, and AOL may use technology from those two companies to provide Internet client software.
As I said, you can now connect to America Online over the Internet if you have MacTCP-based Internet access, either through a network or through SLIP or PPP. Of course, this does you no good if you don't already have an AOL account. You can sign up online if you download the AOL software from:
Once you download the archive, you end up with an installer that puts everything in the right places automatically. Then, from the Locality pop-up menu, you choose TCP Connection.
Note: Although the TCP Connection script comes hard-coded to use the TCPack Telnet tool, with a properly written script you can use a different Telnet tool. Why would you want to? Choice. It's The American Way[tm].
Once you have everything configured correctly, make sure you're properly connected to the Internet (if you use SLIP or PPP), and then click America Online's Sign On button. The login process proceeds normally, but because you've already made the connection to the Internet, it's a bit faster. After you're on, everything works pretty much as normal. Over a 14,400 bps PPP connection, the speed was not significantly different from the normal 9,600 bps modem connection I used to use with AOL. Overall, I found reliability better with the Internet connection, but I've had major communications trouble with AOL, so I may not be a good judge.
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 not only possible, but much faster if you have a fast Internet connection. In other cases, Internet access may be cheaper if you must otherwise call AOL long distance (the actual cost of using AOL is the same no matter how you connect). Also, because of the standard way Macintosh Internet programs work, you can use any number of them simultaneously. This simply isn't possible if one application hogs the modem, as is normal with AOL. Finally, Internet access makes it far easier for non-U.S. users to connect.
What are the disadvantages to connecting to AOL over the Internet as opposed to a normal modem connection? There are a lot of access numbers for AOL around the U.S., certainly more than Internet access numbers. If that's true in your area, there may be no reason to bother with the Internet access. But enough about the connection. On to the Internet services that AOL provides.
I may have quibbles with the way they implement things, or how long they take to do so, but AOL deserves major points for providing as much access to the Internet as they do. You can go to the Internet Connection (see figure 12.2) to read more about it from anywhere on AOL by choosing Keyword from the Go To menu. In the Keyword dialog box, type Internet and press Return. There's also an Internet Connection button in AOL's Main Menu window.
Figure 12.2: America Online Internet Connection.
The problem with using AOL for all of your Internet activities is that you're limited by what's available. For instance, until AOL adds support for a Web browser (which should be in the summer of 1995), you won't be able to access anything on the World Wide Web. And, even if AOL does eventually support everything you can do on the Internet, the best software for using the Internet will always appear first for MacTCP-based connections.
Note: The feature that I most want from AOL, and which they've promised, is the capability to forward all of my email to my Internet address.
America Online's Internet email gateway is easy to use, due to AOL's simple interface for sending email. If you can send email on America Online to another AOL user, you can send email to anyone on the Internet with no additional work. In addition, AOL makes it relatively easy to send email to a number of people all at once for the same amount of connect time that you might spend to send the message to one person. Simply put multiple addresses in the To and/or CC fields, and your message goes to all of them (see figure 12.3).
Figure 12.3: America Online Mail window.
Although they seem somewhat apologetic about not doing so, AOL doesn't reformat incoming Internet email. This means that you may have to expand the size of your email window to accommodate the longer line lengths that Internet email tends to have. An advantage of not reformatting incoming email is that to do so would undoubtedly destroy most ASCII graphics and hand-coded ASCII tables.
Note: If you mainly receive Internet email on AOL, you may want to stick with a monospaced font such as Monaco or Courier for viewing your email, because proportionally spaced fonts such as Times and Helvetica won't work with ASCII tables.
To send email from America Online to the Internet, you don't have to do anything special. Simply type the Internet address in the To field, and fill in the Subject field and the body of the message as you do when sending email to another AOL user.
To send email from the Internet to a user on AOL, you must remember a few simple rules. First, you need to know the person's username. Second, type the username in lowercase letters, because some email packages on the Internet are picky about upper- and lowercase. Third, remove any spaces in the name. Fourth, append an @ and the machine name and domain to the end of the address; for AOL, it's aol.com. For example, my username on AOL is Adam Engst. To send email from the Internet to my AOL account, you would address your message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the Internet Connection, clicking on the Mailing Lists button presents you with a window of information about mailing lists (see figure 12.4), and, most importantly, a button called Search Mailing Lists. It's essentially a simple search in the List of Lists, and AOL thoughtfully provided a Compose Mail button for subscribing on the spot. Had they also created a mailing list subscription manager which would handle all your subscriptions and provide single-click access to the standard mailing list function, it would have been truly impressive.
Figure 12.4: America Online Internet Mailing Lists window.
If you plan to use AOL for serious Internet email, let me dissuade you somewhat. AOL limits the size of outgoing mail to the amount of text that can fit in its software's message box. According to my testing, that's exactly 24,000 characters. You cannot send attached files through the gateway (it's technically feasible, but would increase the traffic significantly), and AOL splits large email messages that come in from the Internet at about 25K each. (This file splitting is actually a major advance for America Online. In the past, it truncated incoming messages at 27K, which was a major headache for many people.) Finally, although you can type special characters such as the bullet ([bl]) or the trademark symbol ([tm]) in the AOL email window, the Internet gateway software replaces some special characters with reasonable replacements, and others with spaces or nonsensical replacements. It would be far better if it did an intelligent replacement, so the trademark sign was converted to something like [tm].
Note: Interestingly, it's hard to tell how long it takes for messages to travel to and from AOL. I sent my AOL account a message from my Internet account, and a few minutes later, sent my Internet account a message from my AOL account. The message from AOL to the Internet was delivered essentially instantly. It took about half an hour for the Internet message to arrive at AOL. Go figure.
Although AOL's software is fine for a message or two a day, if you anticipate joining a mailing list that could generate up to 30 messages a day (which is easily possible), its interface for reading mail can quickly make your life miserable. AOL opens messages slowly, and makes you confirm your actions when you delete a message or reply to a message off-line. I gather that your mailbox can only hold 500 messages, which may seem like a lot, but if you participate in a few high-volume mailing lists and then go on vacation, it's not unthinkable that your mailbox would fill up. Mail that you've read is deleted from your online mailbox in a week; unread mail sticks around for five weeks before being deleted automatically.
Although I believe they have fixed most of the problems, AOL has developed a reputation for having vaguely flaky connections. As a result, sometimes Internet email arrives immediately, whereas other times something delays it for up to several days. This problem isn't serious for the casual email user. It can quickly become frustrating, however, if you're having a conversation with someone via email or depend on your email for business reasons.
Overall, I find AOL's email to be sufficiently clunky such that I don't use it any more. I can get away with this, and you can too, by using a clever program called MailConverter. If you set AOL to download all your new mail via a FlashSession, MailConverter can read in all the messages in the AOL mail folder for your screen name and convert it into a Eudora mailbox, translating the addresses into Internet format addresses along the way. Another option which isn't quite available yet is a commercial program called Emailer from Claris, which can connect to a number of commercial online services and download messages into a single In box. More on Emailer and MailConverter later in the chapter.
Along with email, America Online provides access to Usenet news. Although the interface provided for reading news works, it's about as bare bones as you get. When you click on the Newsgroups button in the Internet Connection window, you see the Newsgroups window (see figure 12.5), complete with handy buttons. These enable you to read the newsgroups you've subscribed to, add more newsgroups to your subscription list, check new newsgroups, and search through the list of newsgroups for those that might interest you. Perhaps most interesting to those of us who have used the Internet is the Set Preferences button, which enables you to set the sort order of the article listings, enter a signature to be appended to your posts, and see the newsgroup names in the "correct" style as opposed to the confusing "expanded" names that AOL has assigned to many of the newsgroups.
Figure 12.5: America Online Newsgroups window.
AOL does a decent job of displaying the newsgroups and opening a new window for each level of hierarchy, although it's very slow to bring in large lists.
Note: If AOL makes you wait for a very long list to come in, feel free to press [Command]-period to cancel the loading process. You won't see anything that hadn't come in, of course, but there may be plenty of items in the list to explore.
Moreover, I find it extremely irritating to have to constantly click the More button when AOL doesn't list all of the items in a hierarchy. This is a major problem with how AOL handles lists in general, so I doubt it will be fixed any time soon. Being able to search for newsgroups is also useful, although both the basic list and the search feature limit the results to newsgroups that AOL finds "acceptable." If you wish to read any "unacceptable" newsgroups (most of the alt.sex hierarchy falls into this category, although there are other sex-related groups that slip through), click on the Expert Add button in the Newsgroups window and type in the name of the group you want to read.
Using Expert Add is the fastest way to subscribe to newsgroups, although most people will probably just use the Add Newsgroups button and browse through the lists of groups, clicking on the Add button when they see an interesting one (see figure 12.6).
Figure 12.6: List of bicycle groups available on AOL.
Once you've subscribed to a few newsgroups (and AOL subscribes everyone to a few newsgroups), click the Read My Newsgroups button to see to which groups you are subscribed (see figure 12.7).
Figure 12.7: AOL Read My Newsgroups window.
The buttons here are fairly obvious. List Unread (or double-clicking on a group name) opens the group and lists the messages you haven't yet read; List All lists all the messages; Mark Read marks all the messages in the selected group as read; Remove unsubscribes you from the selected newsgroup; More displays any groups that aren't yet showing; and the ? button displays help.
After you open the list of the messages in a group, double-click on a message title or click the Read button to read the messages in a thread. It's good that AOL groups messages in a thread, and I like being able to sort them alphabetically. Although there is no method of easily marking which threads to read and which to kill, because you can only select one thread at a time. Similarly, when you get into the actual newsreader, all you can do is move forward and backward one article, mark an article as unread, or send a new message to the group or to the author. We're not talking a particularly impressive interface here (see figure 12.8).
Figure 12.8: A minimalist interface.
But enough ragging on AOL's Usenet interface. It works, it's somewhat graphical, and AOL is more accessible than Internet providers for many people. One recommendation: If you're only used to AOL, or are new to the whole shooting match, please read the newsgroup news.announce.newusers.