I got my first and only AOL account in 1995. At that time, AOL charged an hourly fee for connecting me to the Internet at a speed over 300x slower than the full-time connection I now use in my home. I had to be careful not to use up my allotment of paid minutes in the first few days of the month. To save precious minutes, I would write my emails offline in MS Word, and then paste them into my AOL composition window to send them (Shhh! Don't tell!) I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to surf what I thought was "the web" on my blazing 14.4 kbs modem.
For me, getting onto AOL and checking email was a reason to hurry home from work each day -even though a great number of my friends didn't have email yet. I would turn on my computer and the click the America Online icon. I liked to hear the modem's grating screech. Like Pavlov's dog, I began to associate that sound with AOL's signature "You've got mail" announcement that came a few moments later -if I was lucky.
AOL's push to market their service to people who were new to computers was pure genius. I loved AOL. At logon, AOL creates its own online environment for its members. I and many other Internet novices must have spent hours clicking here and there within the AOL thinking that we were surfing the Internet when we really hadn't left AOL's world.
Eventually, I outgrew the AOL environment and wanted to experience email and other browsing tools with other Internet service providers. After I left AOL, I felt as though I had been stuck in a artificial world like that in the movie The Truman Show.
Nothing about AOL makes it easy to leave (except the incessant advertisements that, to this day, pop up after logging in). The AOL email system uses a proprietary data format that makes it difficult to migrate your email to other email programs like Outlook and Entourage. I abandoned my saved AOL email messages because it wouldn't transfer to other email programs and started from scratch. I have many clients that have AOL accounts they've used for years because they don't know how to leave.
I'm not on a mission to get people to leave AOL -to the degree that people enjoy the AOL experience, great for them. But the task of moving a person's email to whatever email program he or she wants to use shouldn't be a trial.
For AOL users who want to "graduate" to a different mail system, connectedsw.com has tools that can smooth out the migration. Their ePreserver ($25) and Address Magic Personal ($30) software will bring your AOL mail, address book and favorite places to MS Outlook, Gmail, Mac Mail and other email programs.