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 touchwith business colleagues, friends, and family around the world.

Because I have friends scattered among the three major services -- AOLInstant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger -- I haveaccounts on all three. But AOL's history of intrusive and annoyingadvertising practices has ensured that I won't touch the AIM clientsoftware.

My grudge against the AIM software began a few years ago while I was inthe middle of several months of radio interviews promoting one of mybooks, Fighting Spam for Dummies. (Speaking of intrusiveadvertising, 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 morningdrive-time interview on a major East Coast market radio station.Shuffling to my desk in my bunny slippers and bathrobe, I fired up mycomputer so I would have my notes handy during the interview, and then Imade the call into the radio station.

The interview started well, but just a few moments into it, my computerbegan to loudly play what sounded like a commercial for an action movie.The sounds of martial arts music and exploding bad guys were being blaredover my phone to thousands of the radio station's listeners, drowning outmy 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 upunplugging my computer. That stopped the racket, but the damage wasalready done: The radio host thought I was nuts, I was flustered andstruggling to pick up where I'd left off, and the 90-second segment wasalmost over.

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

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

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

I'm happy with Trillian, but as a privacy person, every once in a whilecuriosity gets the better of me, and I decide to give the AIM software atry just to see if anything has improved. These periodic experiments areoften as amusing as they are informative, because they give real insightinto 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 overallappearance during the last half-decade. While it no longer installs theWeatherbug adware -- which I'll talk more about shortly -- it helpfullyoffers to install its own Web browser and yet another pop-up blockingtoolbar for Internet Explorer.

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

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

Unfortunately for consumers, AOL's dominance in the online chat markethas very little to do with innovation or new features. As best I cantell, neither AOL's monolithic software application nor its smaller IMclient have seen much in the way of substantive feature improvement overthe past several years.

But when it comes to seizing control of your computer and shovingunwanted advertising experiences down your throat, my periodicexperiments with their products suggest that what AOL lacks in innovativefeatures for users, they make up for in trying out the latest andgreatest advertising gimmicks.

Another Install? No Thanks

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

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

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

The purpose for these continuously running applications is beyond myunderstanding, but I'm told they are part of how AOL manages to hijack mycomputer's IP address every time I start up its software. This IP addressswitch 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 theproprietary application is that it integrates with their proprietaryservice to make a seamless and smooth experience for users. In thisrespect, AOL is among the first of the ''walled garden'' ISPs, in whichusers 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 itssoftware is a built-in anti-spyware and anti-adware scanning tool. Whilenormally a fan of anti-malware utilities, I found this to be aparticularly cynical move by whoever decides these things at AOL because,until very recently, installations of AOL and AIM were bundled with apiece of adware called Weatherbug. Apparently, the irony of installingadware as part of something called the Security Edition was too subtlefor the honchos at AOL HQ.

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