Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Switching to AOL's Free Plan

(8/15/2005 Update: Apparently a user can switch to AOL Free Plan in this web page without the AOL application. See the bottom of this posting for details.)

Now that America Online offers free accounts to users who already have Internet access, what does this mean to existing users? Particularly:

  • I have had Web pages hosted at my AOL ftp space for a decade. Those pages have had tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hits, and have achieved high rankings in search engines over time. Are these retained if I switch to "Free AOL" from a paid account?
  • We have not used the AOL application for over a decade. Apple's "Claris Emailer" application was the only application ever to communicate with AOL mail servers until the 21st Century, and we lovingly used this until it was quite long in the tooth. We then used AOL's own "AOL Communicator" application for Mac OS X for a little over a year. Early in 2004 AOL began offering industry-standard IMAP mail support, and we've used Apple's excellent Mail application to access our AOL (and other email providers) ever since. If we switch to AOL's free service, would we still be able to use an IMAP mail client?
We have been paying $6.95 for many years, which only included 3 hours of monthly access time. However, this has been more than adequate to send/receive our AOL mail via a broadband connection. We make no use of AOL's proprietary features, but having a 15 year old email address has its appeal. Likewise, I have wanted to maintain my Web pages. So we've continued to pay.

How does an AOL user switch from a paid plan to their free plan? What services are lost? What Services are retained? Let's find out together...

In 1992, after reviewing a number of email and text messaging solutions for our relatives and friends, I selected America Online. Their single application-based solution for establishing a dialup connection, doing email tasks and text messaging was the far and away the most elegant of the offerings I tested.

Now 15 years, a megabit/second and a World Wide Web later, AOL has dramatically changed their entire business model. Once the most popular method for consumers to connect to communicate "online" (not necessarily using the Internet), the company has determined that their future is no longer in connecting users to the Internet, but in being a content-based Internet company, like Yahoo! Maintaining phone lines and modems for dialup is apparently no longer profitable for AOL, so the company is moving away from being an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

In August 2006, America Online announced that it would now offer its services and software free to users connecting via broadband connections. They continue to offer paid dialup subscriptions.

I have not made an America Online dialup connection in several years. At one time, I'd use their ubiquitous dialup servers to stay connected while traveling. But for a number of years, I've been making Internet connections from our PowerBook through my cell phone. More recently, we find an increasing number of hotels offering free WiFi - especially in competitive markets.

Some months ago, I heard an unsubstantiated story on a technology podcast that an AOL subscriber could cancel their account, but continue to use their email. What wasn't clear was whether they could only continue to use the email account via Web interface - not a situation I was willing to risk. It appears now that AOL was discreetly allowing this to happen, knowing that they would soon announce their free service model.

Stories of difficulties in canceling America Online service have circulated for years. Within the last year, a very popular sound clip made the rounds online of an AOL subscriber (who made the recording) attempting to cancel his subscription with a customer service rep who clearly has no intention of letting him do so. Online postings suggest that until late in 2006, the only way to cancel AOL was via a live phone call - perhaps the company hoped to dissuade cancellations.

I used AOL's online live support chat to ask my two questions about switching to their free plan. However, when I started the session in two different browsers, nothing appeared in the chat session window. As you can see from the time stamps, it took almost four minutes before anything appeared (I'd left the window open and was working on something else). Here's the conversation:

6:13:38 PM PST

AOLTechNPG has joined this session!
6:13:38 PM PST

Connected with AOLTechNPG
6:13:48 PM PST

Hello, Ellsworth. Welcome to Live Technical Support. My name is Noli.
6:13:55 PM PST

Ellsworth stated the question or problem as: If I switch to AOL Free, what will become of Web pages I have hosted at members.aol.com?.
6:13:55 PM PST

Are you signed on with the same computer that you need assistance with?
6:14:03 PM PST

To get us started, may I ask what your name is, or how may I call you?
6:16:44 PM PST

Not to rush you, but are you still with me?
6:17:28 PM PST

Hello - my browser window only started displaying the chat 15 seconds ago...
6:17:41 PM PST

My name is Ellsworth.
6:18:02 PM PST

...which I filled out in the "what would you like to be called" field to request this chat.
6:18:37 PM PST

Pleased to meet you, Ellsworth! :)
6:19:04 PM PST

While you're thinking about the answer to my first question, I'll also ask "If I switch to AOL Free, can I still send/receive AOL email using an IMAP client?"
6:19:07 PM PST

To answer your question, that feature of AOL is not affected when you sign up for the free AOl service.
6:20:36 PM PST

Still yes for your other question.
6:21:25 PM PST

So if I change to AOL Free, nothing changes about the services I get from my AOL account except the loss of dialup services?
6:22:20 PM PST

Yes, for detailed information for the services that will be affected, please see keyword CHANGE PRICE PLAN.
6:22:39 PM PST

Thank you very much. Have a good evening/day/afternoon/life.
6:23:10 PM PST

You're welcome.
6:23:15 PM PST
No really helpful responses, truly. In any case, if I find at the end of this current billing period that my AOL Web pages no longer exist, I doubt that "AOLTechNPG" is going to fix it.

So at this point, my perception is that when a user changes from a paid AOL plan to the new free plan, only two things change:
  1. The user no longer has any dialup privileges with America Online.
  2. The user is no longer eligible for online technical support.

Today, it may still be necessary to call AOL to cancel, but a user can switch to a free plan via the AOL application. (8/15/2005 Update: Apparently a user can switch in this web page without the AOL application. See below in this posting for details.) Here's how:
  • Run AOL application
  • Select Menu "Go/Keyword"
  • Enter keyword "change plan"
  • Respond to security warning (this may occur again during procedure)
  • View "The New AOL - We've Changed!" page
  • Click "Change to Free" tab
  • Click "Change to Free" button
  • Answer the security question to identify yourself as legitimate user
  • Asked reminder: "This plan does not include an internet connection or live customer support. To proceed with changing your account to free, click Continue. To view price plans that include connectivity and live customer support click Price Plans."
  • Click "Continue"
  • Presented with "Confirmation" page asking "Please confirm the changes to you account below." - but the mostly-empty page only displays "NEW PLAN:" and on another line "AOL" and a full-page of nothing. At the bottom are "BACK" and "SAVE" buttons (I tried this twice, and both times, a mostly blank page). This is quite confusing, but America Online apparently calls the new free plan "AOL" - and that is all. My current plan appears as "$6.95 AOL w/3 Online Hours."
  • Click "SAVE"
  • The resulting mostly blank page reads "Thank you! Your changes have been saved." A "Close" button appears at the bottom of the blank page.
Experimentally, I now went to Keyword "Billing." Then clicked on "Change My Price Plan." I was again asked my security question. The resulting "Change Price Plan" showed my old price plan, and the "pending price plan" as "AOL" and an "Effective Date" which begins after our current billing period.

When I clicked "Display Plan Details" next to the "Pending Price Plan," a window popped up:
"This plan gives you unlimited usage of AOL over a high-speed broadband connection (purchased separately from your local cable or telephone company) or a dial-up connection (purchased separately from another company)

This plan includes:
*AOL® Security Suite, including anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewall, parental controls, spam fighting, and anti-phishing. Downloads available at KW: Safety. Anti-phishing requires use of AOL Explorer or AOL software.
* 7 AOL screen names, and 1 AOL® My eAddress with up to 100 mailboxes

* Automated customer support. Note: this plan does not include phone, email, or chat customer support.
* 5GB of online storage, in addition to unlimited photo and email storage. AOL® My eAddress email addresses receive 2GB email storage.

* Video-on-demand and 20 XM radio stations

* FREE AIM Phoneline, including unlimited inbound calls

• High-speed connection is not included
• Dial-up connection is not included
• Any changes to your pricing plan will take effect on your next billing date
• Premium services are subject to charges"

We'll have to see exactly what happens next: whether we stop getting billed; whether we can continue to read/write our email using Apple Mail as our IMAP client; whether my Web pages continue to be hosted; and whether I can add more pages to that Web space. I'll let you know. Check back here for an update in February 2007.

Update: January 19, 2007

Today I received the following email from America Online:

Dear Member,

Thank you for contacting Member Services about your AOL® service. This email serves as confirmation that we canceled your Paid Member Account and converted it to a Free Member Account on January 15, 2007. Because you're getting your connection elsewhere, as of February 7, 2007 the expiration of the service period covered by your last bill -- we will no longer provide your Internet access or live customer support.


How to Continue Using Your Free AOL Account:
Once your Paid Member Account is converted, you will still be able to use the AOL service for free -- which means that once you connect to the Internet through another provider, you will still have the same access to:
  • Your current AOL screen name, for email and instant messaging
  • Your familiar AOL software, for quick and safer Web browsing
  • Your AOL® Safety and Security Center, for comprehensive protection from viruses, spyware, and more
  • Your photos, emails, address book and everything else you've saved to your AOL account
  • Great broadband content like AOL® Radio with XM, videos, news, sports and more
For more information on our free features and content, go to AOL Keyword [CTRL+K]: Discover AOL or daol.aol.com. Please note: Use of AOL's free services remains subject to the AOL Terms of Service.

Account Billing Details
Cancellation confirmation number: (a 9-digit number)
Last bill date: January 7, 2007

Because your cancellation request was made after this date, your last charge will appear on your next billing statement. After that, you will no longer be charged any monthly membership fee, though you will be responsible for any other charges you might have incurred since your last billing date, as well as any outstanding balance on your account. To check the status of, or to make changes to, your Premium Services -- including Xdrive, MusicNow and Privacy Wall -- go to AOL Keyword [CTRL+K]: Help or help.aol.com.

Please Note: If you have a separate secondary account(s) created under your master account payment method, you will continue to be billed for these. If this applies to you, you will receive an additional email from AOL LLC to your secondary account with more details.

Please review your billing statements carefully and contact AOL if you have questions about billing or cancellation at 1-800-827-6364.

Thank you again for being a valued member. We hope you continue to take advantage of your free AOL service for a safer, more secure and hassle-free online experience -- no matter who provides your Internet connection.


Todd Waletzki,
Senior Vice President, AOL Member Services

P.S. If you feel you have cancelled your Internet access with AOL in error, or want to explore other low-cost service plans, go to AOL Keyword [CTRL+K]: My Account, bill.aol.com, or call an AOL Member Services representative anytime at 1-800-381-4006.
Update 2/7/07: I checked my account status today, and though it's subtle, my account appears to have changed to AOL's free plan. When in the AOL application (Mac OS X) I go to keyword "billing," instead of going to a local window in the AOL application, I'm now directed to a Web page titled "My Account." Toward the bottom of that page appears this section:

Membership Details

Member Since: 08/07/1992
AOL Membership Fee: $0.01 /month
Price Plan: AOL
Billing Date: 07 March

Curious about that one cent - I'm wondering if that is a way of establishing that the user still has a business arrangement with America Online.

On an interesting note, I received email from AOL titled "Directions to get you connected to AOL" explaining how "To setup your AOL service to connect to the Internet using a non-AOL broadband or network connection." This email was sent by AOL at 3:12am, less than 7 hours before my free service plan was to begin. Had I been a dialup user, I'd have had only this tiny window in which to receive this information and re-configure AOL before - what? - being unable to connect via dialup to pick up this mail. Not very good timing on AOL's part, unless they charge users ad hoc by-the-minute who have the Free Plan for dialup access.

August 15, 2007 Update - No AOL Application Necessary to Switch to Free?

A friend writes:
I needed to get a Windows box working here to use my
flatbed scanner since there doesn't appear to be any
Linux support for it. So I finally had a chance to re-install
some aol host software and switch to free service...

I followed the instructions on your blog, but my host
software that I install wasn't able to open the page
that actually submitted the request. I got a message
to the effect of no SSL version compatible with both
browser and server available. This was with AOL 7.0,
the most recent disc I have, circa 2001. Apparently
it didn't support 128-bit SSL.

But I got enough info as the page attempted to load
to try this: I logged with my screenname and pass at
aol.com using Firefox, then pasted this url into the
location bar:


That page seemed to fit your description, and submitting
it appeared to produce the desired effect. It'll be a while
before I know whether the charges actually stopped.