The right way to ditch AOL
July 7, 1998
by Dan Miller
PROBLEM: AOL's service doesn't justify its new, higher prices, so you want to upgrade to a regular Internet service provider.
SOLUTION: Don't shut down immediately. First find a new ISP, then take the best of AOL with you.
Rick Willis is fed up with America Online. But it wasn't always that way. The 35-year-old systems designer from Cross Lanes, West Virginia, had sampled several online services before settling on AOL last year. Soon he was hooked on AOL's exclusive content and its Net access. "The chat rooms really hypnotized me," Willis says.
Then he began to encounter some of AOL's less mesmerizing peculiarities: "Trying to connect anytime between 6 and 11 at night, I ran into problems. One time, the lines were busy for three hours. Once I got on, the Internet access was so slow. Juveniles were always pestering me with Instant Messages, and my mailbox was always full of spam. It was a pain."
The last straw came in April, when AOL raised its rates from $19.95 a month to $21.95. "I kept reading Steve Case's messages about how they were going to improve the service," says Willis, "but I wasn't seeing any improvement. And then they said they'd have to raise their rates to make more improvements. That was it for me."
So Willis decided to find a new service provider. But first, he needed to figure out how to take the good stuff -- like his address book and access to his favorite chat rooms -- with him.
AOL offers its members (over 12 million people) a great way to explore the Net or visit chat rooms on every topic from raising aspidistras to finding zebra-striped upholstery (see Consumer Watch, June 1998). But it's had its share of problems, too. And while the service has taken several steps to reduce the busy signals, many users continue to be frustrated. Because you have to go through the AOL network before you get out onto the Net, your access to the Web and other Net resources is slower than when you use a more direct ISP connection.
So if, like Willis, you're ready to move on, you should know that making the transition doesn't have to be hard. In fact, there are ways to preserve some of AOL's finest traits.
First you have to find another ISP. To help the conversion go smoothly, make sure you locate a replacement ISP before cutting off AOL. Your new provider should come with a 30-day free trial period, so don't worry about paying for two services at the same time.
After setting up your new ISP, make yourself at home. The first chore? Rebuilding your e-mail address book. Unfortunately, you can't export your AOL address book to a file your new e-mail package can read. Willis took the direct route: He retyped his addresses into his new e-mail utility.
If that sounds too laborious, or if you have too many addresses to reenter, consider broadcasting a message to everyone in your AOL address book, telling them your new e-mail address and when it will be activated, and requesting that they send you a message once your new account goes live. Most e-mail programs let you automatically add anyone who sent you a message to your address book. You'll probably have to correct a few addresses and add details like full names and phone numbers, but at least you'll have a head start on the project. One national ISP that's actively courting disenchanted AOL subscribers--EarthLink Network--offers an automated tool for composing individual change-of-e-mail-address letters to family and friends.
What if you've decided to jump to another ISP but don't want to give up particular features of AOL? You have a couple of options. If you're hooked on Instant Messaging, AOL will let you download software that brings this feature--the virtual equivalent of poking your head in the door and shouting, "Howdy, neighbor!"--to the entire Net. Like the AOL-only version, the IM software lets you create a "Buddy List" of friends, family members, and colleagues who also use Instant Messaging. Whenever your buddies log on to the Net or AOL, IM alerts you and lets you send them messages.
To get started, go to www.aol.com/aim/home.html, register as a user, and download the Instant Messaging software. After installing it, set up your Buddy List by adding your friends' IM screen names. Next time you go online, start up IM and you're ready to communicate.
If, like Willis, you love AOL's chat rooms, you can still access them without setting up a full-blown AOL account. For $9.95 a month, the Bring Your Own Access plan will give you all of AOL's proprietary content, but not the Net access. Type keyword byoa to find out more about the plan.
Willis might like that option. "I do miss the chat rooms. I had a lot of friends up there," he says. But don't expect him to switch back to AOL anytime soon.
Cutting the Cord
Once you've decided you're ready to graduate from America Online, you'll find that canceling your account is the easy part: Just call the company's customer service center (800/827-6364) and tell the service rep to terminate your service, while resisting all offers of more free time. Next you have to remove AOL's software. Start with the usual routine: Use Windows 95's Add/Remove Programs utility (go to Start, Settings, Control Panel and double-click Add/Remove Programs). Then select America Online, click the Add/Remove button, then follow the instructions. But wait, there's more: Just to be safe, go back to Control Panel and double-click the Network icon. Make sure "AOL Adapter" is not listed. If it is, select it and click the Remove button. Then select TCP/IP>AOL Adapter, and click Remove again. That should take care of any vestiges of AOL's software.
Dan Miller is a senior editor for PC World.
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