A look at on-line services: America Online and GEnie


January 24, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

The first big shock of the Los Angeles earthquake had hardly subsided when thousands of computer users in California and across the nation dialed up their on-line services, looking for news and trying to make contact with relatives and friends.

With regular long-distance voice lines blocked or curtailed, the on-line services -- with their own transcontinental networks -- became a conduit for Californians trying to tell outsiders that they were OK, and for families elsewhere trying to make contact with people in the earthquake zone.

In many cases, the on-line users fulfilled a role traditionally played by ham radio operators. Users in L.A. fielded requests for information on relatives from people across the country, made a few local phone calls to track down the Los Angeles residents, and relayed the response via computer. Users across the nation found messages from Californians trying to contact relatives in their communities and relayed the news with a local phone call.

While the four big on-line services often advertise their news, information, weather, games and on-line shopping, the burst of activity in California was a convincing demonstration that the main benefit of on-line communication is its ability to put people in touch with other people. Last time around, we talked about the Prodigy and CompuServe information services. This time, we'll look at America Online and GEnie.

America Online

With its roots in a graphical, game-playing service set up nine years ago, America Online has grown and changed. It really took off in 1993, attracting a young, hip audience that enjoys its friendly and sometimes irreverent tone as well as its excellent messaging and on-line chat capabilities.

AOL has also done a brisk business in refugees from other services, attracted by low prices and an expanding list of news and information features.

AOL's explosive growth has had its price, however. The service seems overwhelmed by its success. Its local access numbers are sometimes busy, its modem connections are shaky, and users have complained about long waits for service.

But these are all growing pains, and they wouldn't be happening if AOL didn't have something good to offer.

America Online requires proprietary software -- in DOS, Windows and Macintosh versions. It's available in sign-up kits packaged with many computers and modems, or by calling AOL's 800 number. Friendly and direct, the software provides a menu-driven graphical interface that doesn't overwhelm you with flash but makes the service the easiest to use of the big four.

Its messaging features are direct, and its on-line chat services are popular, particularly with younger users -- great places for long-distance flirting. Its news offerings, from UPI, Reuters and Knight-Ridder, are adequate if not exhaustive, and they're keyword-searchable. That means that if you want to find everything in the system on the earthquake in California, you can just key in "earthquake."

AOL is in the process of making deals with a variety of newspapers and magazines. Time and Atlantic Monthly are already available, along with the Chicago Tribune. Look for more in the near future.

America Online also offers an excellent selection of downloadable software.

Although it's not as extensive as CompuServe's, it's fine for average users and -- with no surcharge for 9600 Baud service -- by far the cheapest way to access software over the phone.

True to its past, AOL provides on-line games for adults and kids and a nice reference section for youngsters.

As the account holder, you can set up several different "screen names" for yourself or for members of your family. You can also limit access to some features and services that might not be appropriate for unsupervised children.

Pricing: $9.95 a month buys five hours everywhere on the system. Additional hours are $3.60. No surcharges for downloads or for 9600 Baud connection. By far the simplest rate structure. Call 1-800-827-6364


An offshoot of the General Electric Information Service, which provides a wide range of electronic mail and computing services large corporations, GEnie is the smallest of the consumer-based on-line networks but has many features that are worth exploring -- particularly if you need hard business data or are addicted to high-tech on-line games.

I know that sounds like a split personality, but all the services have their specialty nooks and crannies.

GEnie is accessible with any standard communications program, which makes it easy to get to but not particularly friendly.

Its interface is driven by a combination of menu choices and typed commands -- easy enough once you learn the ropes but difficult at the start.

The service's proprietary Aladdin software automates message-sending, retrieving and some other features, but I expect it will be eclipsed by the full front-end software GEnie has promised Macintosh and Windows users over the next two months.

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