I have fond memories of America OnLine. Back when CompuServe was king of online connectivity, I signed on to AOL, long before they had 500,000 subscribers. Years later I helped AOL’s lawyers and security operatives track down some online scammers and was rewarded with a lifetime comp account. In the dozen or so years since, the internet has changed dramatically. So has AOL. Or, so I thought. The new AOL Desktop for Mac is a very competent entry to AOL’s world, which is firmly planted back in the 1990s.
20th Century AOL
The AOL of the last century was a Mac or Windows application which let subscribers dial into a proprietary world of information and advertising. At the peak, AOL may have had over 30-million dial up subscribers.
AOL back then had email, a built-in web browser, and access to more information than anyone ever needed, until the public internet blossomed.
The AOL ‘desktop’, if you will, was a playground mostly unlike the public internet; full of larger than life icons, keywords, yet it had all the basics that we take for granted today, including audio. Remember ‘You’ve got mail?’
It’s still here in the AOL Desktop for Mac, circa 2008. The new desktop looks like the old desktop; a horizontal bar full of icons which runs the width of your Mac’s screen.
21st Century AOL
The new AOL Desktop is strikingly similar to AOL of the last century, circa late 1990s. Frankly, it’s quite well done. Frankly, it’s just a well done version of whatever was popular when Bill Clinton was President.
AOL Desktop for Mac — the new all-in-one application — was built from the ground up for Mac users, by Mac users. It puts your Web browser, instant messaging, email and other popular features all in one place for you, so you can get more done with fewer clicks.
I’m not sure if AOL is going retro with the new Mac desktop, or figured that familiar and simple is better than innovation, advancement, and competing with other attention getters.
It’s Mail, Dude!
You’ve got mail! is still the word with AOL’s new desktop. It’s apparent that AOL didn’t lie. They call it the desktop for Mac users made by Mac users. Nowhere is that more evident than in AOL’s email (click any image for a pop up, close up view).
It’s right here where I begin to wonder who the target user is for AOL Desktop for Mac. OK, Mac users. I get that. AOL’s email isn’t easier than Apple’s Mail in OS X, but it comes pre-configured to match your user name.
No matter what, it’s just email that looks like Apple’s Mail, sans a few features.
Yes, Desktop comes with yet another browser to access AOL’s still somewhat proprietary content, as well as the rest of the public internet. Tabs have been all the rage on browsers for a few years, so what does AOL do to advance the cause?
Tabs on the browser and instant messages give you easy access and an uncluttered, organized view for all of your windows. AOL Desktop for Mac — Your Online Life Organized.
More tabs. The AOL browser isn’t wickedly fast (or slow) or ugly or loaded with confusing or complex features. Or, any features at all. It’s a spartan browser with tabs. You were expecting more?
The browsing experience isn’t bad, it just isn’t special, or even noteworthy. It didn’t take long for me to realize that’s probably what AOL wants. They want to be the Big Brother to AOL users, keeping their innocent siblings separated from the rest of the internet, including mainstream software, such as Mail and Safari.
Desktop for AOL, assuming it truly was created by Mac users, stays true to simplistic values, even down to the Preferences. There isn’t much that can be considered complex, confusing, or frustrating with the new AOL.
Preferences include the basics, Mail, Instant Messaging, Web, Screen Names, and an odd one called Handlers (nothing more than setting default email, browser, and IM for OS X).
All things considered, AOL Desktop for Mac users works very well, but does nothing innovative or even mildly different than the AOL of nearly a decade ago. The layout, icons, color schemes, and details still look like AOL of the 20th century.
There’s advertisements sprinkled here and there, though not as many as last century, or, so it seems. AOL still has plenty of dial up customers who probably want and need only the basics. Email. Web browser. Quick loading content.
That’s what they’ll get. On broadband, email arrives and is sent quickly. Web pages, particularly the AOL pages, load very quickly. AOL instant messaging, AIM, remains a favorite for many millions of users.
One could easily argue, and I’m willing to make the argument myself, that AOL is re-inventing the past—keeping it simple for their customers. If so, they’ve succeeded in providing an email and browsing experience that’s arguably easier than Mail and Safari in OS X.
iChat is still easier to set up and use than AIM.
Perhaps old internet users like me are jaded and need to seem some glitter and glamour and gee-whiz, the latest and insanely great next great thing. Instead, AOL gives Mac users a Desktop for Mac that just works. Nothing more.