Amen, AOL, but he misses tough guy geekware



My wife and I rarely fight about money. She's understanding about my modest technology expenditures, and I'm so glad that she's willing to manage the finances that it would never occur to me to question anything she spends.

But for the past year, this good woman has been on the warpath about one recurring expense.

"When are you going to get rid of that AOL account?" she asks. "It's not like you use the thing. What do we pay Comcast all that money for? Sometimes I think we sign over our whole paychecks to Comcast, and you still want to pay AOL? Can you explain this to me?"

Every male who's been in this position knows you can never "explain" this kind of thing. So I was down-on-my-knees grateful to America Online yesterday when it announced that the services I had really cared about all these years - the kids' long-standing e-mail and Instant Messenger addresses - would henceforth be free.

"We've listened to our customers, and many of them want to keep using these AOL products when they migrate to broadband - but not pay extra for them," Jeff Bewkes, president of AOL's parent, Time Warner, said at a news conference.

Amen, Jeff.

Although AOL will still offer Internet access to its considerable but declining dial-up customer base, it won't push the service. Instead, AOL is remaking itself in the image of Yahoo, Google, MSN and other Internet portals.

They generate income by offering free content and features to all Web surfers and, in turn, delivering their eyeballs to its advertisers.

That's fine with me - but I do feel a bit nostalgic for the bad old days.

I was an AOL member in the 1980s, long before AOL was AOL. There was no universal Internet service then - at least, not outside academia. The consumer online market was split among incompatible services such as CompuServe, Genie and Prodigy.

For business reasons, I joined a lot of them (and paid a fortune in hourly connect fees).

AOL was an afterthought - I became a member by default when PC-Link, another service set up by AOL's founders, was folded into the new AOL.

Until we switched to broadband in the mid-90s, my kids were the real fans of AOL, which had a proprietary, user-friendly interface that introduced millions to no-hassle online navigation, e-mail, chat rooms, news, instant messaging (IM) and other features.

For the boys, e-mail and IM were the killer applications.

I never was much of an AOL fan. I used a local, dial-up Internet service provider - which was how real men went online in those pre-Web days, using tough-guy geekware programs such as Telnet, and Pine and Gopher.

Eventually, I did use America Online for travel. After years of scrambling to make its capacity match its subscriber base, AOL developed a remarkably reliable network that was available almost everywhere.

The funny thing? After we switched to cable broadband in the late 1990s, after I set up my own domain for family Web sites and e-mail addresses, after I'd given up all the other early online services, I couldn't bring myself to give up AOL.

I kept telling myself it was to maintain a dial-up link to the Internet when we were away on business or vacation. But for the last few years we haven't stayed in any hotel that hasn't had an Internet jack in the room - or at least the lobby.

Eventually my wife gently suggested that it might be time to let go of AOL and its $22 monthly bite.

"I don't mind when you spend money on computers," she said with sweet reason. "I just don't want to throw it away."

I demurred, arguing that the boys depended on AOL Instant Messenger to manage their lives and keep in touch with their friends.

If I canceled AOL, their screen names - the handles by which their friends and parents could always reach them - would disappear, I said. That exhausted my wife's patience.

"Get over it, will you?" she said. "These kids are 26 and 23. They're both college graduates and gainfully employed. Somehow they will survive if you cancel AOL."

A couple of weeks ago I sent them an e-mail with the bad news. In two months I would cancel the AOL account.

Now they won't suffer by it, and neither will I.

Technology we may not need: I've always thought that Bluetooth was a solution in search of a problem.

If you've heard the term but have never understood what it meant, Bluetooth is a short-range (15 feet) wireless technology originally developed by the electronics industry to let computers, printers and other gadgets communicate without cables.

Since almost nobody thinks printer cables are a major nuisance, few consumers paid attention until Bluetooth showed up in wireless earpieces designed for cell phones - a big deal now that many states require hands-free cell phone calls from automobiles.

Last night our twentysomething friend Amy told us about a Bluetooth headset with an extra feature - a button that would take control of her cell phone and make it redial the last number she called.

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