What Keeps Aol On Top

It's still the most comfy way to surf, but some problems badly need addressing

For years now, America Online has had a reputation for being the easiest way for novices to get on the Internet. While sophisticates dismiss AOL as "the Net on training wheels," its simplicity and sheltered environment have helped the company become, by far, the world's largest Internet service provider--and have positioned it to become the globe's biggest media company with the proposed acquisition of Time-Warner.

The competition is trying to strike back. EarthLink, the No. 2 ISP, and longtime wannabe Micro-soft Network have overhauled their offerings in a bid to trim AOL's lead. My conclusion, after checking out the new AOL 5.0 for Windows and the latest packages from EarthLink and MSN, is that while AOL could use some improvements, it still offers the easiest on-ramp to the Internet.

The secret of AOL's success is that it has clung to its roots as a pre-Internet online service. People can get most of the content and services they want, including shopping, travel reservations, chat, instant messaging, e-mail, news, and financial services, without ever leaving AOL's comfy confines.

Furthermore, the newest version of AOL's software seamlessly integrates the World Wide Web, so that often it sends you to the Web without your even realizing that it is happening. For example, some links on the stock quotes page take you to internal AOL content, and some take you to external Web sites using a version of Microsoft Internet Explorer. If the Web pages didn't load more slowly, it would be hard to tell the difference.

Installing AOL 5.0 is a snap. Most computers come with AOL software partially installed, although it will likely be version 4.0. It's possible to download the new version, but it is easiest to install from one of the Version 5.0 CD-ROMs that AOL scatters like confetti. One word of caution: The AOL software, like that from EarthLink and Microsoft, can wreak havoc on any preexisting networking setup. This isn't a concern for most people, who use only one ISP. But before installing these services on a computer that is also used to tap a corporate network, get guidance from your company's tech support people first.

My main quarrel with AOL is the inadequate mail program. While it is fine for basic text messages, it cannot display many common attachments, including Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat files. You have to download the attachments, then open them in the appropriate programs, an annoying inconvenience. And if someone sends you a message with multiple attachments, you may not be able to read any of them.

While AOL has surged, Microsoft Network has struggled since its 1995 launch. In its latest incarnation it essentially acts as an ISP and a portal to mostly Microsoft-produced content. MSN 5.0 sets up Internet access in a straightforward way that provides a bit more handholding than Windows' standard Internet Connection Wizard. Once you are connected, you see a home page that is similar to www.msn.com, the default home page for Internet Explorer. An appealing feature is MSN search, one of the better search engines on the Web, though you need not be an MSN subscriber to use it. MSN also sets up an e-mail account for you using Microsoft Outlook Express, a very able program that may intimidate Net novices.

EarthLink, which is in the process of merging with Mindspring, doesn't pretend to offer much original content. One modest innovation is the "side car," a panel in a modified Internet Explorer browser that gives you news and stock tickers, e-mail notification--and ads.

TRY AGAIN. EarthLink provides a multimedia setup procedure that offers good, simple audio and video guidance. I found one annoyance: When an initial call failed to go through, the program made me reenter all my registration data before I could try again. The mail program lacks the bells and whistles of Outlook Express but was simpler to use, while providing much better handling of attachments than AOL.

All of these service-software combinations make it easy to set up and use the Internet even if you have no experience. But AOL remains the champ at providing tons of content in a comfortable, nonthreatening environment. If they fixed the mail program, and maybe got rid of some annoying ads, they would deserve to maintain their lead well into the new millennium.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.