Sunday, June 23, 2024

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


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


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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