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RealTime IT News

AOL Downplays 'Evil Connectoid' Bug in New Version

A serious bug in America Online version 5.0 that prevents users from accessing the Internet was well known to the company prior to the release of the software Oct. 5. But, according to beta testers, AOL chose to disregard their warnings and rushed the new software out anyway.

Referred to by some testers as the "Evil Connectoid," the bug appears to affect primarily AOL users who also have LAN connections or accounts with other Internet service providers. Installing AOL 5 can reset or misconfigure the TCP/IP settings of such users, rendering their Internet connections unusable and generating "server not found" messages whenever they try to connect to Web sites.

The networking flaw was the recent subject of heated postings to the private message boards for beta testers of AOL 5.0. In copies of messages obtained by InternetNews.com, several testers noted that the bug had not yet been resolved in the Gold Master version of the code which was released last week.

"I think a lot of those reports could have been prevented had testing gone on for a longer amount of time. It really seems like the development of 5.0 was rushed....and the members get the bad end of the deal," said one tester.

The concerns of testers were deflected, however, in a subsequent posting by an AOL staff member leading the beta test effort.

"We can neither identify nor eliminate all bugs," wrote the AOL staffer. "I agree it isn't perfect -- few things ever are. In some cases on some folks' machines, I believe installing tiddlywinks would probably be a problem."

America Online (AOL) spokesperson Anne Brackbill said Tuesday that the company's support call center had received "an infinitesimally small" number of complaints about the connection bug in AOL 5, which has been downloaded by three million users and is currently being promoted on the service's sign-off screen.

"We will monitor it very closely and I'm not belittling what may be an issue for someone, but it's almost not noticeable in terms of the number of calls we've received about it," said Brackbill, who noted that 92 percent of AOL's 18 million subscribers use the service as their only Internet connection.

One affected user, John O'Hara, a software developer in New York, said he spent most of the past weekend trying to undo the damage from installing AOL 5.0. O'Hara said the loss of his Internet connection created a Catch-22 situation which made it difficult to get help from AOL or other sources.

"I think this is the tip of the iceberg. Once you lose access and they trash your winsock, you can't get to them. I'm fairly technical and could box my way out of this, but for the home user, this is going to be a nightmare."

According to numerous reports on AOL public message boards, the company's telephone and online technical support staff have been unable to rectify many AOL 5 users' access problems. One fix recommended by AOL online staff involves a multi-step process of emptying the browser cache, purging history files, removing and re-installing the AOL TCP/IP adapter, installing a new winsock.dll file, and reconfiguring the browser's Internet connection.

Brackbill said AOL has no immediate plans to add information about avoiding the problem to AOL 5 installation instructions or to a list of frequently asked questions in the AOL 5 Upgrade area.

Some users on the AOL 5 public message board, however, are calling for the company to stop distributing the software until the bug is fixed.

"AOL, please fess up to the problems with 5.0, warn people about it, fix it and tell us that you have done so, or pull it," wrote one user. "Don't leave your customers vulnerable and in the dark!"

AOL had a number of reasons for promptly releasing AOL 5.0, which was in beta for just over three months. Besides bringing the client software into Year 2000 compliance, the new release also finally delivers a much-delayed online photo service, developed in conjunction with Eastman Kodak, called You've Got Pictures.

But some users speculate that a key reason for shipping AOL 5 last week was a desire by the firm to mark the 10-year anniversary of AOL v1.0, which was released in October 1989 -- a motivating factor referred to by AOL CEO Steve Case last Tuesday during a launch ceremony for the software.