FTP is a recent service, first appearing in late 1994. The interface is well designed and easy to use. There are essentially three different ways to connect to an FTP site: by selecting from a list of favorite sites (not very useful given the number of popular sites that aren't listed), by utilizing a search engine for sites that publish keywords, and by entering the site name in by hand.
Figure 9.15: America Online's FTP Favorite Sites window.
Figure 9.16: America Online's Search FTP Sites window.
Figure 9.17: America Online's Other Site window.
AOL's FTP also allows you to perform nonanonymous or guest logins to servers. You do this by clicking the checkbox that asks for userid and password. When you've connected to the appropriate server, you simply enter the appropriate information. This is great for those companies that set up special files that only you can access. Admittedly, it is limited (how many companies would be willing to do this just for you?), but it gives more flexibility.
When you've connected to an FTP server, the file listing is interesting. It knows about many file types, including directories, files, directory mappings, and more. (see figure 9.18).
Figure 9.18: America Online's FTP file listing.
If you are accustomed to using a Unix Shell account, you find that FTP is somewhat a two-step process. You typically FTP to a site, which transfers the file to your host. But then you have to have a mechanism for downloading the file from the host to your computer (using one of the standard file-transfer protocols like XMODEM, ZMODEM, or Kermit). This isn't to say that it wastes bandwidth, it just is a little confusing and a little more work. AOL's FTP automatically assumes that you want the file on your computer, not on AOL's. Besides, AOL doesn't want to give you disk space to store anything. So, in a two-handed sweep, AOL seemingly downloads the file to its host and then prompts you for a local PC filename. So even though there is a double-download, you only see one.
One odd thing I noticed about the way AOL implements FTP is that you cannot specifically request either a binary or a text download. It performs some table-lookup on known file extensions and then makes a best guess. Granted, I haven't seen it download a file incorrectly, but then again I'm not accustomed to naming my graphic files with common text extensions. I wonder what would happen....
America Online has promised to make the World Wide Web available to its users. How it does so will be a challenge since typical Web client interfaces differ greatly from the standard AOL interface. I can only imagine how the user interface designers are racking their brains over this one. I understand what they're going through, however. What makes AOL so appealing to the average user is that the interface is not only attractive, but strangely consistent (my, aren't I being cynical).
Alas, access to the Web is not yet available. However, AOL, more so than all other online services, makes good on its promises. After all, it did bring FTP online fairly quickly. We do know that Web access is coming because there is even an entry point for it -- only it is under construction.
Figure 9.19: Preview of America Online's Web committment.
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 ([lb]) or the trademark symbol ([tt]) 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 offline. I gather that your mailbox can hold only 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. Five hundred messages would hold me for about three days, max. 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 it has 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.
Finally, although AOL has finally implemented all the way up to 28,800 bps access in some places, the higher speeds are not available for everyone yet, and using AOL at 2,400 bps is a touch painful.
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 case sensitive. 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.
You need America Online's special software to log on to the service, but AOL distributes it for free. Simply call 800-827-6364, and ask them to send you the software. Alternatively, if you have a friend who already uses AOL, that person can ask AOL to send you the software, and she receives some free time online when you first log on.
If you have an account somewhere that enables you to send Internet email, you can send email to email@example.com and ask for a free AOL software kit. Make sure you specify the Windows version, otherwise you may get the Macintosh version. More than likely, you'll get mail back asking you which one you want.