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America Online

The America Online Protocol Revealed 468

Posted by timothy
from the you've-got-something dept.
Gods Misfit writes "The America Online protocol(Connecting, Logging In, Joining Chats, etc..) has remained a mystery for most of its life. The only way one could log into their AOL account was via the AOL software. A few months ago, some people set out to break down the AOL protocol and open the door for alternative America Online software. This document is the result: The AOL Protocol. A sign on example for Visual Basic programmers has been written and is available here." I suspect a fair number of people never try Linux or one of the BSDs because they're moderately happy with AOL as an ISP, and switching OSes would mean switching ISPs at the same time. A shame that AOL doesn't make this kind of information more easily available.
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The America Online Protocol Revealed

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  • by jerw134 (409531) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:17PM (#2407510)
    Wouldn't this be considered illegal under the DMCA, since they reverse engineered AOL's proprietary protocol? If AOL had meant for it to be public, then they would have put it out themselves.
  • by boinger (4618) <boinger@fuc[ ]ou.org ['k-y' in gap]> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:17PM (#2407517) Homepage
    How long until they make an arbitrary change that breaks all the "new" clients? While I don't understand why they'd care (the customer is still, in theory, paying for the service), the fact that they've kept it secret for so long makes me wonder if they'll let this slide. Not to mention their annoying policies regarding the AIM client (how many times did they break everybuddy?)
  • This'll last... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DNAGuy (131264) <brent@brentrocCO ... minus herbivore> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:18PM (#2407521) Homepage

    Considering AOL wasn't exactly thrilled with "Unauthorized" versions of their messaging software (Jabber [jabber.org]) I wonder how long it will take them to have a stroke over this.

  • AOL / Linux (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mighty_mallards (259544) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:18PM (#2407524) Homepage
    I wouldn't try AOL even with my own customizable "protocol". I'm quite happy with a local provider.

    It's not AOL that's keeping me from trying Linux on the desktop - it's that my fiancee needs to use the PC as well, and she has enough trouble with Windows... (okay, that and the games)
  • by MaximumBob (97339) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:20PM (#2407545)
    Finally, I can get onto AOL using Linux! I'm installing it as soon as I get home!

    Seriously, I don't know why whenever something gets posted on /., the sentiment "Finally! Now the average user will use Linux!" has to be used. The simple fact is that the average user isn't savvy enough to use it, and there is a large group of users who ARE savvy enough to use it, but find setting it up to be a big headache.

    America Online isn't going to be Linux's killer app.

    (ducks behind asbestos wall)

  • by jelwell (2152) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:20PM (#2407547)
    Uh, AOL runs on linux also, think Gateway kitchen device, think Playstation 2. It's there, it works, they've shipped. You just can't download it yet.

    But I would go as far to say that the type of people who like computers very simple, and very task oriented wouldn't want to install Linux on their desktop for more than one reason.

    1) maybe AOL
    2) their computer likely came with windows and installing a new OS is beyond their skills
    3) linux desktops are still not dumbed down enough. Come on, TiVo is easy to use, my playstation 2 is easy to use, why is my computer so hard?

    Joseph Elwell.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:21PM (#2407549)
    I think as soon as this knoledge becomes available, we will see a lot of script kiddies popping up with tools to mess with aol
    maybe a return of punters, which currently only work on aim
    who knows, the abilities for scripts as well as exploits have suddenly become endless and easy based on the availability of the protocol
  • Why a shame? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Red Aardvark House (523181) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:23PM (#2407567)
    A shame that AOL doesn't make this kind of information more easily available.

    This reminds me of the same sort of complaint found in a recent Slashdot article on Microsoft [slashdot.org]. Do you really think AOL/Time Warner wants this type of information spread around so they can lose subscribers?

    It's not a shame, it's good business sense.
  • by pixel_bc (265009) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:23PM (#2407568)

    Why?

    WHen you use their client, they control eveything you see. What you can do. Think - they could force commercials or ads down yoru throat (and they will). If its opened up, you know people will just chose not to accept them.

    The protocol will change very soon. :)

  • by sid_vicious (157798) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:24PM (#2407574) Homepage Journal
    I suspect a fair number of people never try Linux or one of the BSDs because they're moderately happy with AOL as an ISP ...

    Let's face it, the reason that AOL and Linux don't mesh isn't because there's no AOL-Linux interface. It's because people who use AOL use it for a reason - it's got a happy, friendly, push big rainbow colored buttons, don't-cut-yourself safety-scissors interface. Love 'em or hate 'em, it's what they do well - an interface so simple that even grandma can use the demon box.

    Linux is still, even in its most user-friendly form, a system that requires you to get some dirt under your fingernails while you use it. It's still a power-user OS.
    There just simply isn't a big overlap between the types of people who use AOL and the types of people who traditionally run Linux.
  • by Gaijin42 (317411) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:24PM (#2407575) Homepage
    The reason they won't let this slide : not all of AOL's revenue comes from subscription. They have lots of ads. And alternate clients could nix the ads, hence no ad revenue.
  • by rabtech (223758) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:27PM (#2407602) Homepage
    Not if you figure out the AOL auto-updating mechanism as part of the protocol. Then, the only way they can lock alternatives out is to actually force everyone who is on AOL 2,3,4,5, and 6 to upgrade immediately. That isn't ever going to happen.
  • by monkeydo (173558) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:27PM (#2407606) Homepage
    While I don't understand why they'd care (the customer is still, in theory, paying for the service), the fact that they've kept it secret for so long makes me wonder if they'll let this slide.

    If you've ever used AOL you'll realize while they probably won't "let it slide" AOL is much more than an ISP and the client is about 80% of that. Whether they take legal action depends on their lawyers, but it would be trivial for them to get around this technically. Since the AOL client automatically every time it connects they could simple change some small bit of the protocol every week (or day) that would break the non-AOL clients until someone patched them. AOL could probaly automate this fairly easily to the point that they could just do it forever or until the non-AOL folks just give up.

    I imagine you'll see cease-and-desist letters followed by engineering changes, followed by lawsuits.

  • Sweet! Oh wait... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ryepup (522994) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:28PM (#2407611) Homepage
    So who is ever go to put time into this? Anyone who can write something like this is probably not interested in dialing up to AOL, and the 'ease-of-use' folks who can't write it probably appreciate the AOL interface.
    Other than hacking into AOL for the fun of it, this is pretty useless. It's a good blow for the cause of open protocols and file formats.
    I suppose there might be a market for a simple AOL client, for those who use it for portable internet access.
  • by Paul Carver (4555) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:36PM (#2407653)
    As a single person without children I've never had any desire to use AOL, but I know lots of AOL users. There is at least one good reason to use AOL. Years ago internet access was $20/month and that gave you one email account. Meanwhile, AOL gave allowed you to create many accounts. Which is the better choice for a family with several children? One account shared between mom, dad, and all the kids, multiple accounts with some (possibly outrageous) surcharge per POP account, or one AOL account with lots of screen names?

    Even now, most ISPs will give you a couple of POP mailboxes for $15-$20/month, but few if any provide the ease and convenience of creating new "screen names" that AOL provides. Try telling a 12-16 year old girl that she can't change her screen name to avoid some pre-pubescent geek who's harrasing her via email.
  • by jgaynor (205453) <[jon] [at] [gaynor.org]> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:45PM (#2407705) Homepage
    A bunch of clone clients have been trying to get hooks in for years to no constructive end because AOL actively tried to BLOCK other clients from connecting. If I remember correctly Jabber and MSN had it working for a while until AOL forced them out by altering the protocol. Most lately I believe they've been doing it with executable checksums. We might have figured out the protocol, but theyre just going to change it up again as soon as foreign clients start connecting in large numbers.

    Some old coverage of this [zdnet.com] can be found at ZD. Theyve got a whole site called "InstantMess" that talks about how AOL refuses to discuss an open format because they want to lock users into their app.

    Recently Trillian (www.trillian.cc) [trillian.cc] has succesfully done it. I think they got around it by using whatever method the JAVA aol clients (AIM express, Quickbuddy) [aol.com].

    Id love to see an open standard, but without AOL on board its useless. Its sad really - that the unwashed masses are dictating the standard for the rest of us.
  • by Methuseus (468642) <methuseus@yahoo.com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:56PM (#2407778)
    Things that are proprietary are not always bad. Windows 95/98 used a proprietary IP stack, but you could still share a connection, use said connection with other programs besides IE, etc. It's when proprietary things severely (in our minds, our meaning tech geeks) limit what you can do beyond the realms of "reasonable use" or whatever you want to call it. I hope that answers your question.
  • Re:Silly Rabbit! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Plugh (27537) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:58PM (#2407794) Homepage
    The AOL protocal was a nice reverse engineering hack. Nice work fellows.
    Hear, hear!
    Look:
    There is nothing wrong with a cool hack, made by hackers, that is solely of interest to other hackers, and that maybe even impresses your hacker friends.

    This is all Just For Fun, people... never lose sight of that!

  • by discogravy (455376) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:04PM (#2407841) Homepage
    >>>>3) linux desktops are still not dumbed down enough. Come on, TiVo is easy to use, my playstation 2 is easy to use, why is my computer so hard? >>>>

    Because your computer is not a single purpose machine. Arguably, PS2 isn't either, but it's main purpose is not as a DVD player or computer -- notwithstanding sony's "lets pretend it is so we can avoid UK taxes" strategy. Your computer is designed (at least PCs) to do any variety of things. Apple's machines are meant to do a few specific things -- if your machine isn't designed to, you can't easily open them up and switch much around to make it into a game machine, a music studio, a word processor, a programming station, a server, a tv/digital recorder without voiding your warranty; Apple has seen the desire people have for these functions and (mostly) built them into it's design. A PC is as flexible as it is because the parts are (mostly,) off-the-shelf stuff.

    Computers (and operating systems,) are dumbed down for the hoi polloi -- this is what gets you stuff like Win ME, or the anti-command line stance that Apple has(had). It's a "make it unbelievably easy for every idiot to use". Most people these days don't use their computer's full capabilities because they don't need it; they'll do a little word processing and surf the net, maybe play a game or two and if they're really stretching it, use a couple of other extra apps -- geneaology programs, tax and accounting software, etc. Most people don't have a LAN at home -- most people don't have more than one computer at home. AOL is simpler than Win9x in many way, and way simpler than 2000/NT variants.

  • by dohcvtec (461026) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:06PM (#2407850)
    Much more than a handful, actually. A lot of people only use Windows because that's all they know, and many of the same people only use AOL because that's all they know. It's one of the fundamental reasons AOL & MS are as widepsread as they are ("So easy to use no wonder it's number 1!" & "All my friends are on AOL!") But as far as the people who are torn between using AOL as an ISP and running *NIX, I think these people would be few in number, as you said.
  • Re:Silly Rabbit! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by passion (84900) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:09PM (#2407881)
    no - but how many people leave their system booted into windows, since their SO, mom, whatever doesn't know how to:

    # sync
    # sync
    # /sbin/shutdown -r now

    If they could just click on a pretty AOL icon on the linux desktop, a lot of linux-users might drop their windows partition entirely.
  • by Rocketboy (32971) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:10PM (#2407893)
    Not to mention that AOL never supported Windows NT because they couldn't figure out how to install their stupid AOL Adapter TCP shunt thing.

    AOL 5 runs fine on NT 4.0. AOL doesn't support it, but it works. The last time I called their tech support (last Spring,) they said they'd have a specific NT client out by now. I haven't seen it and don't know that the world really needs it since AOL 5 works fine. I also bitched about the lack of a Linux client and the support person told me that they thought one was going to be released, but I haven't seen that, either. I figure it's either vaporware or someone changed their mind.

    AOL's mail service is terrible but a lot of people don't want to change their e-mail addresses.

    AOL is also one of the few IPs who allow multiple users per account (although only one can be signed on at a time.) With five people in my house (all of whom have e-mail accounts,) I'd pay $100 per month for separate unlimited access accounts for everyone. With AOL, it's just $23 per month. Pure economics. Another reason for AOL accounts is their great worldwide POP network. We keep several AOL accounts for traveling salespeople and executives because we know they can find a local POP to dial into from just about anywhere they happen to be: London, Munich, Mexico City, and almost anywhere in the US. It beats the heck out of paying ruinous hotel long distance charges, or the '800' AOL line surcharge. And really beats the crap out of talking a marketing manager through whatever weird TCP/IP setup a local provider in Back Woods, Ontario needs for a local ISP connection over the phone on Sunday evening. :)

    Finally, you no longer need the AOL mail client to send/receive AOL e-mail, you can use practically any web browser. Just point to www.aol.com and sign in to your AOL account, then click the mail icon. Presto, you're there. It's all web-r-ized. Webbified. Whatever.

  • by audacity242 (324061) <.moc.oohay. .ta. .242yticadua.> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:33PM (#2407957) Homepage
    So, here's the premise. AOL isn't available on Linux or BSD, therefore people who are happy with AOL but considering switching to Linux/BSD would not switch, because AOL isn't available.

    There's just one problem. How many AOL users are even aware of the mere EXISTANCE of Linux/BSD? The people who use AOL when there are other options available are the same types of people who use Windows simply because that is what is loaded onto their computer when they bought it. The vast majority of AOL users aren't going to bother to find out whether other OSes would be good for them, considering that they haven't bothered to see whether ISPs are better.

    -Jenn
  • AOL now sucks less (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Apreche (239272) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:52PM (#2408041) Homepage Journal
    Well AOL the company isn't so hot because they didn't give away this information. However the main reason that AOL stinks as an ISP is because in order to connect you have to load this enourmous hog of a program into memory. With a normal dial up isp you use dial up networking, and with a NIC you load nothing. If we could write a very small program that simply connects to aol and establishes an internet connection, that would be fantastic. People could still use AOL, but it wont suck, as much.
  • There just simply isn't a big overlap between the types of people who use AOL and the types of people who traditionally run Linux.


    Everything you say is true (I did't quote your entire post, but I mostly agree with all of it). There is one point you and many others overlook: @Home is bankrupt. What will thousands of Linux users do when their always-on, high-speed ISP goes away and is replaced by AOL? Switch to Windows? Perhaps so, either that or go back to a dial-up ISP. If I were faced with that choice, I'd prefer to figure out how to make AOL work with Linux. Or rather, figure out how to make Linux work with AOL. There may not be much overlap between Linux users and AOL subscribers now, but in the near future there may well be quite a bit of overlap as the "types who traditionally run Linux" are given few alternatives.

    Unless you think it might be easer to get MSN to play with Linux.

  • Re:AOL / Linux (Score:2, Insightful)

    by snilloc (470200) <[moc.liamtoh] [ta] [snilloclj]> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:14PM (#2408170) Homepage
    It's been my experience that if a user is so much a novice that they're tripping over their own feet in Windows, then you can swith them to KDE and they'll be no worse off.

    Considering the amount of work I've had to done to get my parents up to their current level of usability with Windows, I'd rather not start all over again. If I were starting from scratch, I wouldn't be as concerned about using KDE or Gnome.

    For way too many people, learning to use "the computer" means learning how to use specific Microsoft products.

  • Re:AOL-Linux (Score:2, Insightful)

    by RobNich (85522) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:24PM (#2408233) Homepage
    I had the same situation. I was an AOL user since 93, on Windows 3.1. I tried Linux (Slackware) in '95, in the middle of installing Win95 (I had repartitioned anyway). I went back to using AOL until I got a job where we used dial-in access, and finally got our own T1, 1997. In January 1999 I got ADSL from the phone company. I've never looked back.

    The discussions I have about AOL with users I support all seem to be about what AOL actually does. They don't have any proprietary content worth speaking of--all of the good content is actually a website which non-AOL users can get to as well. AOL doesn't want their users to be aware of this, of course.

    The only argument I have seen for using AOL is parental control. In one case, someone pays for ADSL, but also pays for BYOA AOL so that his kids can access only the clean stuff. Now that the ADSL provider [zoomtown.com] has this service, his situation may change.

    However, I have converted two other users (families) from AOL to standard ISP broadband (using Win/IE), and have introduced two users to the Internet with a standard ISP. All are very happy.
  • by flegged (227082) <anything @ my third level domain> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:45PM (#2408329) Homepage
    Actually, the write.exe binary (from windows 9x onwards) just opens wordpad.exe, passing the parameters it received. It's there for compatibility with win16 apps which expect write.exe to be in every installation.

    Of course, if you were to take actual binary from Windows 3.1, it would still run, even on Windows XP. Gotta love backwards compatibility.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @06:38PM (#2408543)
    The info/source presented exploits an old version of the AOL login protocol. All versions from 4.0 up support a login with a cryptographic handshake that makes it immune to the type of replay used here. AOL always has the option of disabling the old-style logins; while it would impact legit users who aren't running 4.0 or newer, that has to be a pretty miniscule fraction of their total user base by now, and could very well be worth it to them to shut out all the script kiddies and non-ad-viewers.

    --AC (three guesses why I am posting this as AC, and the first two don't count)
  • AOL version 2.5? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by alcohollins (64804) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @06:39PM (#2408545)
    This document reveals the "secret" protocol of AOL version 2.5. Version 2.5 was released eons ago. The protocol has probably changed a lot since then, since AOL's current client is on version 6.0.

    In addition, this document must be eons old as well. Who claims this is a new document? Why would anyone bother with deciphering AOL version 2.5 at this point? This is ancient info.

  • I loved Q-Link (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hollins (83264) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @07:12PM (#2408674) Homepage
    I loved Q-Link. Maybe it was because it was the first online community I was involved in, but I suspect it had more to do with the community itself. It was small (relative to today's standards), and populated with mostly honorable people. I spent most of my time playing chess, but recognized a surprising portion of the usernames in most of the chat areas. No virtual communities have come near it since. The closest today are well-moderated IRC channels, but these are too small. On the other hand, AOL is too big, rooms don't have consistent community and there are 5 trolls or lurkers for every good person.

    I've expended a lot of thought about what led to this type of community, free of trolls and the seedy quality of most chatrooms. I think it came from a couple things:

    1. It was new to those participating. We hadn't learned to abuse anonymity.

    2. The size was right. IRC channels are too small, while the scale of IRC servers or AOL itself is too large.

    3. We paid a buttload for the service. At $3.60/hour the bills racked up quick. No one would pay that today, but it sure kept the idiots out.

    It would be nice if someone started an AOL type community that required an application to join, capped its membership numbers (~5000), did not provide anonymity and charged a fee. I doubt it could be profitable, but it might be very refreshing.
  • Re:Excellent! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JoeShmoe (90109) <askjoeshmoe@hotmail.com> on Wednesday October 10, 2001 @03:56AM (#2409819)
    You ask, why is it a pity?

    Because I'm trading one piece of proprietary software for another. Let's say AOL does something to break eNetBot (like they did to MSN Messenger several times)...well I will be SOL if eNetBot Inc. can't fix it in a timely fashion.

    Contrary to what you may think, I don't have a problem with someone making money off this piece of software. But can't I still be allowed to lament the fact that the underlying information isn't available? Compare this eNetBot thing to what the original article was about.

    Original article is a document explaining how the AOL protocol is formatted, as well as some basic functions to demonstrate usage. Five out of five stars. eNetBot doesn't explain anything but offers me an alternative to the piggish AOL client for e-mail. Nice, but still only four out of five stars. Thus, my pity comment.

    I'd much prefer a website that went something like "here's how to write your own interface to access your AOL Mail via the website...oh by way if you're interested I've already written one and you can have it for $X".

    - JoeShmoe

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