The latest software from America Online Inc., the world's largest Internet provider, can prevent customers from using rival online services or corporate connections, enraging smaller competitors and even some of AOL's own subscribers.
Critics contend that version 5.0 of America Online's Internet
software which a national technology magazine this week suggested
was "the upgrade of death" sometimes cripples existing Internet
accounts with rival companies and prevents current AOL users from
signing for service with competitors.
"You're faced with a company that knew its software would blow
up the ability of its competitors," charged Bill Kirkner, chief
technology officer for Prodigy Communications Corp., an AOL
competitor that has roughly 2.2 million subscribers. "We can get
our customers through it if they call, but the solutions are
sometimes a bit nasty to go through." These include deleting and
reinstalling software, and sometimes tinkering with arcane
America Online, with 20 million subscribers, said complaints
about interference by its latest software are overblown and the
result of customers not understanding that if they click yes during
installation to allow AOL to become their default Internet browser,
AOL largely takes over all the online functions on the computer.
"If a member picks yes, we make their lives simple," said Jeff
Kimball, AOL's executive director for its client software. That
means AOL seizes responsibility to display all Web pages, send all
e-mail and exclusively perform other tasks online.
But rivals and some AOL customers complain that the selection,
made with a single click of a mouse with no added explanation, also
can suddenly interfere with connections to rival Internet services
or business accounts.
"It wipes out their previous settings, and the customer becomes
an AOL customer," said Kirsten Witt, a spokeswoman for Mindspring
Enterprises Inc., with 1.3 million subscribers. "In effect it
allows the customer only to access AOL."
Peg Graham of New York installed AOL's latest software on her
laptop weeks after its initial release in October with disastrous
results: Her computer crashed. In vain, her laptop manufacturer
urged her to reinstall her entire Windows operating system she
did three times before she finally paid a local repair shop $145
to fix it.
Afterward, she returned to an earlier version of AOL's software
she considers less risky. She suspects the new program suffered
conflicts with the laptop's network hardware she used to connect at
"There's no person to hold accountable," fumed Graham, who's
now shopping for a new Internet service. "They just say, yes, we
know there might be problems. It's almost like brushing you off."
The complexity of modern software can lend itself to problems
that are hard to diagnose and make it even harder to lay blame.
Rival Internet providers won't say exactly how many customers have
reported problems, and no one admits even to calling AOL formally
to complain about its software's alleged behavior.
AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley reported "very minimal calls about
this," and many AOL customers said they installed the latest
software without hassle.
But AOL's own message boards, with thousands of complaints since
Christmas, suggest these problems are more than fantasy concocted
by disgruntled rivals. And this week, Windows Magazine's Web site
asked, "AOL 5.0: The Upgrade of Death?"
The magazine's technical testing showed AOL's software installed
redundant files that threatened a computer's stability. The
software crashed the first time it ran. "AOL can reduce a
perfectly good computer system to a paperweight," the magazine
Software problems like these also can take on enormous
implications when a company becomes as dominant as AOL, which last
week announced its $145 billion mega-merger with Time Warner Inc.
That's a deal that will allow AOL to distribute this new software
with Time Warner products, including its magazines, which draw 120
million readers. So far, about 8 million of AOL's 20 million
customers have installed the new software.
The federal government last year pursued high-profile antitrust
complaints against Microsoft and Intel, proving that even goliaths
of the nation's booming high-tech industry aren't beyond its
Indeed, as AOL Chairman Steve Case testified before Congress
last April about high-speed Internet connections, he drew a mild
rebuke from Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who cautioned that AOL
one day could run up against antitrust laws because of its own
"They're still a young-company mentality," said Frank Soler of
San Francisco, an AOL subscriber since its earliest days who won't
install the latest software for fear of its effects. "They could
find themselves in a heck of a lot of trouble. Somebody might
accuse them of trying to do away with competitors. They have to be
very careful how they proceed."