If you don’t use AOL, the only reason to read this column is to feel smug. (But that’s always fun.)

I know a lot of you think I’m crazy to still be using AOL, but along with 20-odd million other crazy folks, I know AOL (or thought I did), I like AOL, and, what’s more, I’m stuck with AOL. Everyone has my e-mail address and I have all their addresses in my AOL address book. Switching would be a colossal pain, not least because AOL doesn’t allow you to export your address book. (Steve Case’s mother raised no stupid sons.) Also, I’ve always just assumed that AOL would continue to improve so that I’d like it better each year.

That assumption failed with AOL 6.0. I have no doubt 6.0 is great if you’re just starting out. But when I went to convert from 5.0 to 6.0, after a 3-hour download, it said, in effect, Sorry, you have too many people in your address book. Why not either delete a thousand of them, or else just start entering in all the information anew?

AOL Suggestion #1If the AOL supercomputer detects that a user’s address book is so large you don’t want to give it free storage on AOL’s hard drive, don’t shut me out, give me an option. The message might read: ‘Wow – you DO have a lotta friends! We’d love to accommodate your entire list on our hard drive for free, but have had to set some limits. So please either go through and trim your list down to 999 entries (surely some of these people have died by now, or have ticked you off in some way), or else authorize us to charge you an extra penny a month for every one above that. Click here.’

Something like that. It’s a win-win. If someone has an extra 1,500 addresses, that would be an extra $15 a month – found money to AOL (for whom the extra storage capacity would cost almost nothing) – and probably not a big deal to the kind of person (well, me) who has 2,500 addresses, some with very long “notes” entries he doesn’t want to lose.

Do this, Steve, and you make more money from me; keep people like me from finally biting the bullet and leaving for a competitor.

AOL Suggestion #2 – My personal filing cabinet grows more monstrous by the day, because I elect to save all my incoming and outgoing mail. And that makes backups less convenient – my files no longer even fit on a 120MB floppy! – and raises the risk of corruption and who knows what else.

There at least two easy ways to make a huge dent in this problem.

The first – suggestion #2 – is to be honest about the delete function – and fix it. I am not a completely stupid person (yet – I’m getting there), but after millions of hours with AOL, I only found out last night, over dinner with an AOL vice president, how this works.

Currently, as I go through my e-mail, I click to ‘delete’ the ones I don’t need to save. AOL takes deletion in this situation very seriously and forces me to confirm I really mean it. And then, even once I’ve confirmed that, AOL still saves it for a little while in a section called ‘Recently deleted e-mail,’ just in case. So I know that AOL really takes this ‘delete’ function very seriously. I appreciate that.

I do delete the unneeded ones, and confirm the deletion, because if I kept all the junk I get, ‘monstrous’ would not begin to describe the size of my files.

Anyway, last night I discovered you’re just kidding. You don’t delete the messages at all. When I click the delete button and confirm that I really mean it, you stick the unwanted messages into my gargantuan, monstrous, mega-sized filing cabinet anyway. Only if I take a special trip to that file and delete them there do you actually delete an unwanted message.

I never knew that.

The AOL VP guy, a friend of mine, explained why it works that way, and from the point of view of a systems engineer raised on another planet, it’s quite logical, if totally counterintuitive. But I live on Earth, and I am not a systems engineer, and I naively assumed ‘Delete’ meant ‘Delete.’

Yes, I could now take six weeks to go back through four billion saved e-mails, manually deleting the ones I had thought I deleted in the first place. But somehow I can never find six spare weeks when I need them.

So here’s my second suggestion: Allow an option to REALLY delete an incoming message you don’t want to save. This alone might cut the size of the file by two-thirds. (The really long messages, typically, are the spams about On-Line Casino Gambling and Hot Teenage Girls.)

AOL Suggestion #3 – This one is even easier, and addresses the same ‘file size’ problem. If I get a message from another AOL user – ‘Thanks,’ is a typical message – it takes up almost no space in my file. But if I get the same one-word message from a non-AOL-er, it comes with 20 lines of routing garbage at the bottom. So 95% of what is saved is garbage.

My AOL VP guy told me that garbage can be helpful if we ever need to track a cyber-terrorist – and that’s great. But if there were a way to get rid of all that junk, I could shrink my gargantuan file by 50% without having to find six weeks to do it. So here’s my suggestion: Off-line, in the utilities area where you encourage people periodically to ‘compact’ their files, allow an option to ‘strip out routing garbage more than [ 5 ] days old.’ (The user could change the number of days, but the idea would be that, after a fairly brief time, if you’ve been cyber-terrorized, you would probably know it. No need to keep this routing stuff for a lifetime.)

I’m no programmer, but it seems to me it would be easy and fun to write the algorithm that, at lightning speed, would look at each saved message in turn, from the bottom up, deleting lines of gobbledygook. A warning could disclaim responsibility for perfection – ‘this process may leave some routing garbage in your files, because when in doubt, we try to err on the side of leaving something you might want to keep.’ Also [it could continue], ‘if you have received messages which have the characteristics of Internet routing garbage, we could accidentally delete something you did want to keep. For details on the rules we distinguish messages from routing gobbledygook, click [here].’

The final warning might be: ‘If you have thousands of saved messages, this process could take a few hours. It’s best to start it before you go to bed. When you wake up, your gargantuan file of saved messages will have been stripped of the junk, and your file will have been compacted.’

The combination of Suggestions #2 and #3 would probably have cut my file size by 80% or more. It’s too late for #2 to shrink my existing files – that will only help going forward. But #3 would work retroactively, and be a great help.

AOL Suggestion #4 – For reasons that elude me, but that I truly pray will never change, I have access to your VIP help line. (I used to be a contenda!) It is . . . fantastic. But every time I call, I feel so grateful – and so guilty – that I make the following suggestion: Charge extra for this wonderful VIP service. And make it available to anyone willing to pay for it.

Just as it makes sense to allow crazy people to pay $1000 for first class seats instead of $200 for coach seats that arrive at the same time, allow people to pay an extra $15 a month or whatever to know that when they call, they will get top-of-the-line service without having to wait.

This will add to your profits; add to the satisfaction of some of your best and most impatient customers; provide the funds to hire a few extra tech support reps who’ve been laid off from dot.coms, or who were Clinton/Gore under-secretaries of one thing or another; and provide extra resources to provide better service even for standard customers who don’t want to spend the extra $15 a month just to avoid indeterminate waits on hold. (Obviously, it’s important you make a commitment not to allow the standard support to deteriorate from the level maintained prior to launching VIP Service.)

I probably only call four times a year. But knowing that this resource is there when I need it is one of the reasons I haven’t abandoned AOL. I should be paying you for it.


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