Investigating a rumor that AOL had staffed their Nickelodeon area with teenagers, I tried to visit AOL's keyword "Nickelodeon" -- and stumbled into download hell.
"Most would agree that you need at least 28.8 speed to be satisfied with the Web," Steve Case claimed in a December 1995 Community Update -- giving users the dubious warning that "arguably you need ISDN or cable modem speed to really enjoy it." But not on AOL, Case continued, which is "optimized for slower speeds."
But in actual practice, AOL requires 15-minute art downloads from their users with 14.4 modems.
Users complained about annoying art downloads through most of 1996. AOL would display a blue status bar which scrolled across their screen as images were installed on the user's hard drive. There was no way to stop the download--and users hated it. AOL eliminated the practice in the fall of 1996.
But their latest solution isn't much better. When attempting to access an area for the first time, users are sometimes urged to download all the artwork in advance. In the case of AOL's "Nickelodeon" area, refusing to accept the art download prevents access from the area altogether!
"Before you can use the toys, ya gotta get the noise," Nickelodeon barks on their welcome screen.
"[B]efore you can do anything else, you have to download the sounds." Presumably this option is even in effect for computers which don't have sound cards. It then advises users that the process will take 15 minutes with a 14.4 modem -- and even with a 28.8 modem, a full 7 1/2 minutes. I soon discovered that the download can take much, much longer....
Here's the first screen displayed in the Nickelodeon area, advising me of the impending download....
Since I was researching the Nickelodeon area for a story, I'd have to download the artwork. I decided to forgo the second option -- "Get ME Outta' Here" -- and let AOL begin the lengthy download.
It would turn out that the estimate of the time it would take was off by nearly 1000%. Blithely unaware of the purgatory I was entering, I read Nickelodeon's screen optomistically. "While we're giving you the sounds, learn to say the alphabet backwards," it advised cheerfully. Below that, in smaller letters, it suggested users sing it to the tune of 'Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts'."
Unfortunately, the download stalled at 46%. When I returned to the software a half hour later, it was still saying that the download was 46% complete. I returned in an hour -- and got the same message.
The download took so long, AOL's "Idle Timer" kicked in. I found out that AOL now issues warnings to users every 30 minutes, demanding that they indicate that they still wish to remain on-line. If they decline, they're automatically logged off.
I returned every half hour to respond to the timer, wondering how long the download would take. Three hours later, the blue bar hadn't moved. The download was still 46% complete. Since AOL didn't offer any way to de-activate the download, there was no way to abort the download short of pulling the plug on the computer (or at least, AOL's software.)
Four hours. Five hours. Six hours. The download hadn't moved. I successfully thwarted AOL's idle timer, in the desperate hope that AOL's software would come back to life and resume the download which, for my modem, should've taken seven minutes.
But I failed... In the eighth hour, I missed one of AOL's idle timers, and lost my opportunity to complete the download....
Now I was determined to find out what was on the other side of that "fifteen minutes." I logged back into AOL, and was able to get the download to resume. It still took a long time -- minutes and minutes passed, as I held my breath.
Nine hours after I had begun, the download was complete.
"Everything's going exactly according to plan," the next screen announced.
Then I was asked if I wanted to spend another 24 minutes downloading more artwork. Apparently I had only downloaded the sound files.
I began to download the sound files -- but again, the system paused ominously mid-way through the download. When I got my second chance, I opted not to have any more files downloaded to my hard drive.
The moral of the story? AOL does whatever they want with their system. Downloads aren't optional -- and they also aren't executed smoothly. There's not much you can do about them -- other than compare the experience to browsing the internet with a web browser, and deciding if using AOL's software for your on-line experience is really worth it.