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AOL 6.0 E-Mail Client Draws Mixed Reviews

America Online may be late to the party, but its new, HTML-enabled e-mail client offers unique security and privacy features that could put AOL's program on top. Too bad AOL had to spoil the effort by forcing HTML down everyone's throats.

While popular, standalone mail packages such as Qualcomm's Eudora, Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express, and Netscape Messenger have been able to compose and display HTML-based messages for years, AOL belatedly added the capability in AOL 6, which was released to the public last week.

But testing by InternetNews.com in conjunction with Richard M. Smith, chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation, revealed that AOL version 6 ships with superior protection against HTML-based security threats.

According to Smith, AOL's new e-mail client disables any JavaScript code embedded in incoming e-mails. As a result, recipients are shielded from a number of attacks which use the scripting language, as well as from malicious ActiveX controls contained in HTML-based messages. Microsoft's and Netscape's popular e-mail clients, on the other hand, allow such active content in e-mail by default.

"AOL implemented HTML in a safer form, and given that they have such a large market share, that's a good thing. Microsoft could take a cue here from AOL in doing e-mail in a safer way by default," said Smith.

What's more, the AOL 6.0 mail client offers singular protection against a stealthy privacy threat called web bugs. These are the 1x1-pixel graphics that are sometimes embedded in web pages and e-mails with links back to the sender's server. With most e-mail packages, when the user views the mail, his or her IP address is silently logged by the sender. Some e-mail marketing companies use web bugs to monitor how many people actually view their ads. They can also be used to synchronize a browser cookie to a particular email address.

But a feature in AOL version 6 called the "Picture in E-Mail Warning" can stop web bugs before they load. By default, the AOL software pops up a warning box whenever a user tries to view a message with an embedded graphic. While the warning can be disabled in the AOL 6 Mail Preferences menu, Smith says the feature gives AOL users a unique privacy shield.

"Other e-mail readers don't offer this option, and it's going to have the effect of raising awareness of web bugs. It keeps the marketers from nosing around," said Smith.

PLAIN TEXT IS NOT AN OPTION

While the AOL 6.0 e-mail client may have a leg up on other packages, the new software is marred by a few blemishes.

Some users have reported formatting bugs when the software displays HTML messages created by other packages such as Outlook Express.

Others are upset by the AOL 6 e-mail client's inability to send messages in plain-text format only. Unlike Outlook, Eudora, and Netscape, AOL 6 composes all email in the multipart-alternative format.

In theory, recipients of AOL 6-generated e-mails with HTML-enabled email readers should see HTML or so-called "styled text" formatting, while those with plain-text readers will see just text. But some older email clients -- particularly some that run under UNIX -- may not be able to handle multipart formatting and won't be able to display AOL 6-generated messages at all. Others are reporting a messy combination of both the HTML and plain-text versions in the same message.

Even when they display properly, AOL 6 messages are roughly twice the size and require double the bandwidth of plan-text emails, based on test