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AOL's new software getting rave reviews

June 23, 1996


America Online has released new software for its proprietary online service.

AOL 3.0 is a significant upgrade for Windows 3.x and Windows95 users -- one that any Windows user of AOL will want to see for themselves.

For starters, the new software includes updated icons throughout the system. The familiar icons have been replaced with a cartoonish though neat-looking icons, adding improved eye appeal to the interface.

The opening menu screen has more sections to visit -- AOL has shuffled some of its content around into groups that seem to make more sense and are easier to navigate.

The best feature of the new AOL software is undoubtedly the built-in World Wide Web browser.

AOL 3.0's new browser supports most HTML and Netscape extensions that the previous versions did not. Translated, that means that the Web page you view with AOL's new browser looks like it should in Netscape -- even if the page was, like my own Web page, enhanced for a certain Web browser (Netscape 2.0, in my case).

Tables, background images, text and link colors, all the gee-whiz thingies that page designers love to use will be displayed as intended by the page author.

The new software was just released, and isn't available on any of those pesky AOL disks you find bundled with the Internet-related magazines. But you can download it for free from AOL. It automatically installs itself on your hard drive. In fact, it will detect your old version of AOL's software, and will automatically transfer your setup information, passwords and settings to the new package.

MORE ON AOL. Complaints of unfair business practices against AOL have reportedly attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission.

Some subscribers have complained of AOL's billing practices, including alleged difficulties in canceling AOL memberships and trial accounts. While not a formal investigation, regulators apparently are concerned that some practices may violate federal rules.

AOL isn't alone; other online service providers that provide free trials are have their business practices under the FTC's scrutiny.

Steve Case, chairman and CEO of AOL posted a letter to members on the service Friday, said the company was taking steps to correct any deficiencies, and giving members more information about their account billing.

In general, AOL has focused on improved customer service, adding a support center in Oklahoma City, and reducing the hold time for customer support telephone calls.

And speaking from experience, if you've ever signed up for a free trial account with any online service, check the records for the account you used to start it -- usually a credit card or bank checking account. Charges after the date of cancellation may appear on your statements.

ENGINE TROUBLES. The move recently by the Open Text to sell preferred spots in its search engine has attracted a firestorm of criticism from competitors.

Search engines allow a user to enter keywords and perform searches on the Internet. Improvements in search engines mean that a simple search can turn up hundreds, even thousands of matches.

And while there are ways to narrow the searches, many engines rank how relevant to your search the software believes the match to be.

Open Text however has moved to sell positions within the information that a search provides.

Why? Simply put, few people go beyond the first screen or two of matches (Open Text says 85 percent of users never go beyond on the first 10 matches) -- meaning that depending on the search engine, your Web site that may appear several screens down from the top of the list may never be seen by a user.

Open Text says it was responding to customer demand; companies were calling and asking to pay for a top spot when a user performed a search for a particular word.

Critics (and competitors) say the move hurts the integrity of the Internet search engines. ``This is like librarians putting books on the end of a bookshelf if you pay her some extra money," said Bob Davis, CEO at Lycos. ``We would not do it with Lycos.''

Will this trend catch on? Keep your eyes peeled the next time you visit your favorite search engine.

EXPLORER GETS JAVA. As promised, Microsoft has released Java support for its Internet Explorer 3.0 Web browser, and ahead of schedule.

The Java support component is available free from Microsoft, though its only available right now for Windows95 systems. Support for Java on Windows 3.x and Macintosh systems will be forthcoming.

Java is the language that promises to add much to now-static content available on the Web. Java code, called applets, can be downloaded by a Java-enabled browser, creating graphics and applications beyond what is now available on the Net.

If security concerns about Java have you leery, then don't download and install the new Java support module for the Explorer 3.0 Web viewing software: unlike Navigator, you can't disable Java in Explorer (not yet, anyway).

CORD ACCORD. If the area behind your computer resembles mine, your cords and cables have more knots, twists and tangles than the Boy Scout Handbook. But a new product by IBM may help ease the problem.

Big Blue announced last week it has developed a cordless modem that would put your computer online without being plugged into the wall.

Combining existing low-cost cordless phone technology and analog modems, IBM has created the prototype and hopes to have the product on the streets later this year.

It won't eliminate that rat's nest behind your PC or Mac, but it may be a start.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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