AIM: Getting More than You Bargained For

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I am an avid user of Instant Messaging (IM), using it to keep in touch with business colleagues, friends, and family around the world.

Because I have friends scattered among the three major services -- AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger -- I have accounts on all three. But AOL's history of intrusive and annoying advertising practices has ensured that I won't touch the AIM client software.

My grudge against the AIM software began a few years ago while I was in the middle of several months of radio interviews promoting one of my books, Fighting Spam for Dummies. (Speaking of intrusive advertising, you can pick up my book at your favorite online retailer!)

One particular morning, I had arisen around 3 a.m. PST to do a morning drive-time interview on a major East Coast market radio station. Shuffling to my desk in my bunny slippers and bathrobe, I fired up my computer so I would have my notes handy during the interview, and then I made the call into the radio station.

The interview started well, but just a few moments into it, my computer began to loudly play what sounded like a commercial for an action movie. The sounds of martial arts music and exploding bad guys were being blared over my phone to thousands of the radio station's listeners, drowning out my own voice.

Panicking, I quickly tried to stop whatever was playing on my computer, but I couldn't find it! In my haste to make the noise stop, I wound up unplugging my computer. That stopped the racket, but the damage was already done: The radio host thought I was nuts, I was flustered and struggling to pick up where I'd left off, and the 90-second segment was almost over.

In the aftermath, it took me quite a while but I managed to track down the source of the disaster: AIM.

Unbeknownst to me, when I logged onto my computer that morning, AIM downloaded a small video of a movie commercial. For no apparent reason, moments into my radio interview, AIM decided it was time for me to see the advertisement, whether I wanted to or not.

Within minutes, I had banished AIM from my system and to this day continue to use a third-party program, called Trillian, to access my AIM account.

I'm happy with Trillian, but as a privacy person, every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me, and I decide to give the AIM software a try just to see if anything has improved. These periodic experiments are often as amusing as they are informative, because they give real insight into how desperate AOL is at any given moment for advertising revenue.

Pop-Up Surprises

In my most recent AIM installation experiment, I was not let down.

The latest version of AIM is virtually unchanged from its overall appearance during the last half-decade. While it no longer installs the Weatherbug adware -- which I'll talk more about shortly -- it helpfully offers to install its own Web browser and yet another pop-up blocking toolbar for Internet Explorer.

The pop-up blocker seems to work pretty well when you're browsing pages in Internet Explorer. But the real fun comes when you realize that you will still get pop-ups... courtesy of AIM! Yes, just when you thought AOL was looking out for your interests, you are reminded that their reasons for protecting you are to ensure that they get the first crack at you!

AIM is, by most accounts, AOL's most popular feature. Although tight-lipped about how many actual users it has, most analysts suggest that AIM remains far and away the most popular IM service in the United States, with MSN and Yahoo! coming in second and third, respectively.

Unfortunately for consumers, AOL's dominance in the online chat market has very little to do with innovation or new features. As best I can tell, neither AOL's monolithic software application nor its smaller IM client have seen much in the way of substantive feature improvement over the past several years.

But when it comes to seizing control of your computer and shoving unwanted advertising experiences down your throat, my periodic experiments with their products suggest that what AOL lacks in innovative features for users, they make up for in trying out the latest and greatest advertising gimmicks.

Another Install? No Thanks

I began doing consulting work for AOL back in 1994, and have been using the AOL software since about a year before that. Over the last decade, I've watched AOL's main software application become a bloated monstrosity that installs all manner of memory hogging add-ons.

The current install of AOL's 9.0 ''Security Edition'' loads up mysterious programs called ''AOLServiceHost'', ''AOLHostManager'', ''AOLDialer'', ''AOLSPScheduler'', and literally a half-dozen more programs consuming dozens of megabytes of RAM. It also installs unwanted support programs, including something called ''PortMagic'' that purports to make your router work better. It also scatters a handful of unwanted icons on your desktop, your start menu, and even among your browser bookmarks.

My favorite mysterious AOL installation is something called ''AOL Coach''. I have no idea what Coach is, but from the exorbitant amount I pay AOL each month, I'm pretty sure that I deserve a seat in First Class!

The purpose for these continuously running applications is beyond my understanding, but I'm told they are part of how AOL manages to hijack my computer's IP address every time I start up its software. This IP address switch causes most other IP-address-based applications to disconnect, reset, or, in some cases, to simply crash.

It has been explained to me over the years that AOL's intent behind the proprietary application is that it integrates with their proprietary service to make a seamless and smooth experience for users. In this respect, AOL is among the first of the ''walled garden'' ISPs, in which users are protected from the wilds of the Internet by IP tunnels, proxies, and even a stripped-down and re-skinned Web browser.

Among the features imbedded in AOL's latest Security Edition of its software is a built-in anti-spyware and anti-adware scanning tool. While normally a fan of anti-malware utilities, I found this to be a particularly cynical move by whoever decides these things at AOL because, until very recently, installations of AOL and AIM were bundled with a piece of adware called Weatherbug. Apparently, the irony of installing adware as part of something called the Security Edition was too subtle for the honchos at AOL HQ.

The Weatherbug may be squashed for the time being, but regardless of which AOL software applications you choose to install, you can always count on getting more than you bargained for.

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