RealTime IT News

AOL Facing New Legal Action Over Latest Software

Enticed by the allure of new bells and whistles, Jane Donofrio was among the first to download and install AOL version 6 when it was released to the public October 25. But the Atlanta-based child therapist and longtime AOL subscriber never got to try out those new features.

"It never connected. I would hear the dialing, the tone, then it would get as far as 'Talking to Network,' and that was it," said Donofrio, who said she spent a nightmarish day trying to undo the damage inflicted on her laptop by the upgrade.

"It never dawned on me that AOL would release a product that was so obviously buggy. The tech support guy sent me an e-mail of what to try. I had to reinstall Windows and AOL about five or six times. I was thinking, what happens if I never get my Internet back?"

The "Talking to Network" bug is among a number of serious networking glitches in AOL 6 that have plagued some early adopters. While many have upgraded without a hitch, the numerous complaints on AOL's message boards and in Internet newsgroups suggest AOL's latest software effort could be shaping up as a painful replay of events of a year ago. Similar bugs in AOL version 5 wiped out the networking ability of numerous users, and landed the big online service in legal trouble.

Thursday, attorneys leading ongoing class-action suits against AOL over version 5 said the bugs in AOL 6 demonstrate that the company hasn't learned its lesson, and the lawyers say they will likely expand their lawsuits to include the new software.

"I don't think they learned as a result of the litigation on 5.0. I think they've just gotten a little more arrogant and feel that they can get away with it, and I think 6.0 will probably become part of the suit," said Reed Kathrein, a partner with Milberg Weiss in San Francisco, which is leading four firms in a consolidated class-action on behalf of AOL users.

HEAVY-HANDED APPROACH

AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein Thursday declined to reveal how many complaints the company has received about AOL version 6.

"Obviously it has been a tremendously successful launch, and we've had very, very positive user feedback from members who have upgraded to it," said Weinstein.

One technical expert who tested the program on behalf of InternetNews.com, however, believes that AOL's efforts to avoid a repeat of the 5.0 fiasco may have backfired and inadvertently created some of the problems encountered in 6.0.

Steve Gibson, CEO of Gibson Research Corp., a software development and consulting firm, noted that the new program is a whopping 28-megabyte download. One reason for the bulk is the slew of Windows networking adapters and protocols that the AOL client installs on every PC.

"If you install AOL 6, basically you're handing over your whole machine's networking configuration to them, and they're just overwriting your entire network with their cookie-cutter [approach]: 'This is what we're going to do to your computer. Bend over,'" said Gibson.

AOL's heavy-handed installation strategy has wreaked havoc in particular for broadband users or those on networks. Vickie Herndon, a medical transcriptionist in Virginia, reported that she wasted hours jiggering with software and hardware after AOL 6.0 wiped out her home-office network, which shares a Cox@Home cable connection to the Internet.

"This is my bread and butter. AOL needs to realize that they are not the only thing out there. I would never use them for an Internet connection for work -- I only use them for their content," said Herndon, who is now back on AOL 5.0.

Among the numerous networking components AOL 6 loads on every PC is Microsoft's