America Online doesn't charge for internal email or for email that goes in or out through its Internet gateway. This has endeared this service to budget-conscious online users. In addition, AOL has reasonable monthly base rates of $9.95 for the first five hours and $2.95 per hour for each hour after that. You can sometimes get special signup deals that offer even more free time for the first month.
America Online's Internet email gateway is one of the easiest to use, due in no small part to the 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. This service is handy, for instance, if you write a fairly general letter to a friend and want to send it to two other friends at the same time. Simply put multiple addresses in the To and/or CC fields, and your message goes to all of them (see figure 9.4).
Figure 9.4: America Online mail window.
Although it seems 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 Internet email tends to have. An advantage of not reformatting incoming email is that to do so would undoubtedly destroy most ASCII graphics and handcoded ASCII tables.
NOTE: If you mainly receive Internet email on AOL, you may wish to stick with a monospaced font such as Courier New for viewing your email, since proportionally spaced fonts such as Times New Roman and Arial won't work with ASCII tables.
In the Internet Center, clicking on the Mailing Lists button presents you with a window of information about mailing lists (see figure 9.5), 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 9.5: America Online Internet Mailing Lists window.
Along with email, America Online now provides access to Usenet news. Although the interface provided for reading news does work, it's about as bare bones as you get. When you click on the Newsgroups button in the Internet Center window, you see the Newsgroups window (see figure 9.6), 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.
Figure 9.6: America Online Newsgroups window.
AOL does a decent job of displaying the newsgroups and opening a new window for each level of hierarchy. However, I find it extremely irritating to have to constantly click on 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 (the entire alt.sex hierarchy falls in 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 (see figure 9.7).
Figure 9.7: America Online Expert Add window.
This is also the fastest way to subscribe to newsgroups if you have trouble, as I do, translating from the expanded names America Online has given the newsgroups back to the proper Usenet names. Part of the problem with AOL's expanded names is that they seldom convey anything about the hierarchy of the group in question. Hierarchies can make a difference when you're trying to figure out what to read or where to post (see figure 9.8).
Figure 9.8: List of alt groups.
Subscribing to a newsgroup generally requires double-clicking on the newsgroup name in the list, clicking on the Add button in the newsgroup description window, and then confirming three or four times that you really want to do this.
NOTE: AOL is obsessive about making you confirm your actions; it drives me nuts. If I click on a button, there's a pretty good chance I meant to click on it, and if I confirm that I want to do something, there's an excellent chance that I know it is going to happen. No need to tell me that I actually did indeed click on that OK button. Sorry for the rant.
Once you've subscribed to a few newsgroups (and AOL subscribes everyone to a few newsgroups, although I'm not sure which ones any more), click on the Read My Newsgroups button to see to which groups you are subscribed (see figure 9.9).
Figure 9.9: America Online Read My Newsgroups window.
I find the Internet Names button a bit irritating, since it "translates" the names that AOL has made up for the newsgroups into the groups' real names. This provides the ever-so-useful information that "MS-Windows Applications" is really the newsgroup called comp.os.ms-windows.apps. Do you feel enlightened?
Anyway, 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; Remove unsubscribes you from the selected newsgroup; More displays any groups that aren't yet showing; and the ? button displays help. Once you open the list of the messages in a group, you must again double-click on a message title or click on the Read Messages button to read the messages in a thread. It's good that AOL groups messages in a thread, although there is no method of marking which threads to read and which to kill. Similarly, when you get into the actual newsreader, all you can do is move forward and backward one article, post a new message, send a response, and mark articles as read. We're not talking a particularly impressive interface here (see figure 9.10).
Figure 9.10: 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.
Along with Internet email (which can provide access to FTP and Archie, as you learned in chapter 8, "Internet Services"), AOL provides limited access to Gopher servers and WAIS sources. Once again, I'm not all that impressed with the interface AOL provides, compared to the WinSock-based clients for Gopher and WAIS, but we can't have everything. Clicking on the Gopher & WAIS Databases button in the Internet Center window brings up the Gopher and WAIS window (see figure 9.11).
Figure 9.11: America Online Gopher and WAIS.
Delving into the topics that America Online presents is much like working with a normal Gopher server, with WAIS and searchable Gopher items represented by little book icons (see figure 9.12).
Figure 9.12: Gophering on America Online.
There are several major limitations to AOL's implementation of WAIS, and -- somewhat more so -- Gopher. Most importantly, you can only retrieve text items. There is simply no way to download a file of any other type, as far as I can see. I'm also bothered by the selection of Gopher and WAIS items that AOL includes. There's nothing wrong with it, but AOL makes it downright difficult to get out to the normal Other Gopher and Information Servers item that you get to with some WinSock Gopher clients. What you must do is click on the More button in the Gopher and WAIS window to display all the categories. At the bottom is Other Gopher and Information Servers. Double-click on that to open its window. But that's not it, yet. Finally, click on the More "Other Gopher" button to bring up the More "Other Gopher" Resources window. It shows you the full geographical hierarchy of Gopher servers that can be handy for finding a new Gopher server (see figure 9.13).
Figure 9.13: Finally made it to Other Gopher and Information Servers.
Luckily, using Veronica to find something isn't nearly so hard, since there's a Search All Gophers button on the main Gopher and WAIS window that brings up a search window for searching with Veronica. AOL has set up a private Veronica server so response is generally pretty good (see figure 9.14).
Figure 9.14: America Online searching in Veronica.
NOTE: You can even use the -t switches that limit the search results to certain types of information. Use -t1 to limit the results to directories, and -t7 to limit the results to searchable items.
My main irritations with America Online's Veronica, and with the Gopher interface in general, are the irritating More button and the slow speed. In time, all of that is bound to improve.
Finally, America Online offers a discussion area in the Internet Center called the Internet Connection Message Board. If you use Internet services from AOL regularly, stop in and check it out for the latest information on the Internet connection.