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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 Anonymous Coward
    Not everyone can read .wri, a .txt and/or .pdf would be nice.
  • Congratulations! (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by Methuseus (468642)
    As much as I dislike AOL, I understand many people like it. I'm glad that one more proprietary thing has been broken to help people. I just hope this doesn't make AOL accounts any easier to hack into, as I've heard. I don't know the exact nature of AOL's login process, so does anyone have any idea what the chances this can be used as a malicious hacking tool are?
    • Re:Congratulations! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by aozilla (133143) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:53PM (#2408592) Homepage

      AOL cracks have been in existence for over 10 years now (way before AOL was even on the internet, or called AOL). As it turns out, AOL started with a lot of security through obscurity (they used to trust the client for a lot), and as a result, there were holes galore. One crack a couple years ago realized that you got internet access before you actually logged in, and for a while people were getting free internet access without signing up again every 30 (now 45) days (like those of us with a little more fear of jail time do).

      In any case, yes, releasing the protocol might uncover some additional security through obscurity holes, but in the end they can always be plugged up, just as they have in the past.

  • by jerw134 (409531) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:17PM (#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 jd (1658) <imipakNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:21PM (#2407556) Homepage Journal
      I think that would only count if AOL claimed to be secure. That would be one interesting legal argument.
    • by Milican (58140)
      I don't know the specifics of the DMCA, but I don't believe any form of encryption was broken into. I don't believe that reverse engineering a protocol through trial and error is illegal. However, circumventing a security / encryption mechanism is. Please feel free to correct any discrepancies.

      JOhn
    • by Purificator (462832) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:25PM (#2407585) Homepage
      it may be illegal, but not under the dmca because it doesn't involve bypassing encryption to get to data; it's just reverse engineering. if the software has a reverse engineering clause there might be problems.

      i liked timothy's comment that people who use aol may shy away from bsd or linux because they wouldn't want to switch isps. having seen the aol interface and met aol users, i doubt any aol user would honestly USE linux. at best a couple might try the install, but go back to using windows.

    • by blakestah (91866) <blakestah@gmail.com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:53PM (#2407756) Homepage
      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.

      No. Reverse engineering algorithms protected only by copyright is always legal. DMCA makes it illegal to circumvent or reverse engineer copyright protection schemes. There is no evidence anything of the sort has been done.
    • by mindstrm (20013)
      Because this isn't directly a copyright issue.

      The DMCA makes breaking a copy protection mechanism illegal.. which this isn't.

  • I suppose there might be a handful. A small handful. Not "a fair number".
  • by boinger (4618) <boinger@nOSPAM.fuck-you.org> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:17PM (#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?)
    • by Gaijin42 (317411) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:24PM (#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 @02:27PM (#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)
      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.

      • 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

        The difficulty is to change the protocol in a way that doesn't break their clients but does break all of the unauthorized clients.

        They can't just force everyone to update overnight. Some people still use AOL 2.

        One way that's been discussed here before is to alter the protocol to request a selected checksum of the executable. Now the only way you can answer this checksum query is to have an actual copy of the AOL client. This still does not make it impossible to implement an Open Source client.
        • One way that's been discussed here before is to alter the protocol to request a selected checksum of the executable. Now the only way you can answer this checksum query is to have an actual copy of the AOL client. This still does not make it impossible to implement an Open Source client.


          Hmm, need a copy of the AOL client? I've got two copies here on my desk at work, my copy of the Godfather Trilogy is at home, ordered from Amazon, so there might be a disk in there, I might order from Tiger Computers in the next few days, so they'll send a disc, I saw one of the PC rags at the grocery store the other day with a disc, and I know I just threw away one of those that came unsolicited at home just last Saturday.

          So, while I can't put up an ftp site with a copy of it, I'm sure there must be one or two people with an unwanted copy of the client.

  • by John_Booty (149925) <johnbooty&bootyproject,org> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:17PM (#2407519) Homepage
    ...was keeping AOL users ON Windows? Now they can spread....
    • Actually, given AOL's and MS's recent adversarial squabbles, there could be benefit to AOL to support (more) non MS platforms (than they presently do).

      What would happen if a major OEM (Dell, Gateway, etc.) computer came bundled with Linux, StarOffice, and AOL on the desktop? This is in AOL's advantage. Although non-o-fish-al clients may not be.
  • This'll last... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DNAGuy (131264)

    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)

    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)
    • [My fiancee] has enough trouble with Windows...

      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.

      That said, I completely sympathize about the games.

  • AOHell? (Score:2, Funny)

    by British (51765)
    Does this mean a stronger, better, more annoying version of AoHell will be released?
  • by dashmaul (108555) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:20PM (#2407544)
    AOL on Linux.

    Isn't that like having a red neck teach physic's at MIT?
  • by MaximumBob (97339) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:20PM (#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)

    • It would be nice if there was an "AOL" client, perhaps based on linux, that was user friendly. It would never boot into windows, just into AOL. I can see a freestanding unit costing under $100 (and perhaps, eventually, given for free to subscibers) that allowed users to login and navigate AOL specifically. Such a unit would increase AOL marketshare.

      So AOL could be Linux's killer app... but it wouldn't be from Linuz hackers.
    • by Lumpy (12016)
      AOL users were using linux for the past year.

      Buy a AOL/Gateway connected pad, it runs linux :-)
      AOL has been running on linux for months now by AOL's own design.

      Yes, it was easier than a PC with windows and their client. Why did it die? who in their right mind would pay $399.99 for a webpad that only connected to AOL!
  • by jelwell (2152) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:20PM (#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.
  • Silly Rabbit! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by funky49 (182835) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:21PM (#2407552) Homepage
    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.

    Probably very few people using AOL would consider playing with *nix. If you're playing with other operating systems, you've probably already outgrown AOL. You're not burning ISOs from Redhat that you downloaded via AOL/dialup. If you're on AOL, you're happy and content and most probably don't want to be switching ISPs or playing with a new OS. Besides, just because you're on a new OS, doesn't mean you have to get rid of your M$ partition and AOL as your dialup. People can explore the goodness of *nix on that old computer in the closet they feel bad about donating to the Salvation Army.

    The AOL protocal was a nice reverse engineering hack. Nice work fellows. AOL didn't make it more freely available because it was a proprietary technology. They'd prefer to keep it to themselves or license it out.. otherwise they would have used a published standard.

    =steve
    • Re:Silly Rabbit! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Plugh (27537) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:58PM (#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!

    • Re:Silly Rabbit! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by passion (84900) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:09PM (#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 vocaljess (464531) <<moc.tenrst> <ta> <ssejkm>> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:21PM (#2407558)
    when you have to use aol's software to log in to aol, you have to look at the ads and crap that they want you to look at. aol is just one large, happy advertisement. with the possibility of being able to log into your aol account without having to use their software, they'll lose some of that advertising exposure, which means that yes, they will have kittens over this. whee.
  • More technical info about AOL can be found here. [bbspot.com]
  • Why a shame? (Score:2, Insightful)

    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.
  • 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 @02:24PM (#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 Rick the Red (307103) <Rick@The@Red.gmail@com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:00PM (#2408080) Journal
      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.

  • by Traicovn (226034) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:24PM (#2407577) Homepage
    Actually, it doesn't surprise me that they don't make it available. If they release that information, they lose an edge they have on joe average as an entry level computer user. How many times have you talked to someone who wanted to show you something that was on the 'internet' and in reality, it was something that was on a section of AOL? AOL has done a really good job of making a 'controlled' section of the internet we're they control the information. By having only one style of software they have more control also. Would YOU just want anything to connect to YOUR server and have authorization privleges? Of course AOL is very much based on server side scripting, and a butchered version of html. All aol sections are addressed with an aol://xxxx:xxxx:asdgfsadgas type link... a mix of alphanumeric strings, etc. Essentially it's THERE style of html distributed through a browser.

    But in the end the bottom line is profit. You don't want to allow people to get onto the internet where you can't 100% control what the first thing they see is. AOL gives the illusion to first time joe averages that it IS the internet. My mom spent months on AOL without even using the actual internet and she thought she was on the internet. It's marketing genius. You control their access, you control the way content is shown, you give them places to spend their money and control the ways they communicate. Everyone does it the same way, so everyone is having a similar version of their own experience...
    The AOL designers aren't dumb IMHO, sure it's not the service that I want as my ISP, but when it comes to marketing, they know what their doing...

    For awhile they were going to make it so you could use them as a 'traditional' isp using Dial-up, but I don't think that anything really ever came of it.... I guess AOL users just like hearing 'WELCOME, YOU'VE GOT SPAM, (I MEAN MAIL)...'
  • by Nf1nk (443791) <nf1nk AT yahoo DOT com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:24PM (#2407579) Homepage
    This will not get AOLers to switch OS's. Most AOLer's are very paranoid about any change to their computer.


    They fear that the change they make will kill their expensive toy and force them to go talk to a more computer literate friend who will once again berate them for using the most expensive ISP with the worst service.


    What this will do. (maybe) is covered by point 8



    8) Common Sense

    Ok, most of you have probably stopped reading by now. But I need to make a point.


    The only reason that the information above is not already widely available is because of the fear of abuse. Putting this information in immature hands is dangerous. Some people believe that if it gets out, the walls of the America Online service will come crashing down as things like faster mail bombers, spammers, IM bombers, and cloners begin to immerge. It may very well be impossible to enter a chat room without being so lagged by scrolling, IMs, and emails that you cannot even stay connected. I don't personally believe that though. Due to the complexity of these packets, it is far harder to use even copied source of this than to use copied source of the infamous "AOL Progs" that eventually died out. If you are learning from this document, I implore you to use common sense in your use of this information.

    I suspect that this doocument will be the source from which nasty new AOL hacks will be based. And now that it is out it is in very immature hands.

    Not that it matters to me because I don't use AOL


    • You're right, it won't get AOL'ers to switch Operating systems. Why would it? It works perfectly fine under windows.

      What it will allow is for people who are using AOL to switch operating systems if they want to. There's a subtle distinction between allowing the change and causing it.
  • Gaim (Score:2, Informative)

    by peter_gzowski (465076)
    I don't know about the ISP protocol, but people have cracked the AOL Instant Messenger protocol, so you can use AIM in Linux (along with various other protocols, it's fantastic). It's called Gaim, and it's available over at Sourceforge (link here [sourceforge.net]). Happy chatting!
  • Sweet! Oh wait... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ryepup (522994)
    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.
  • Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Leven Valera (127099) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:30PM (#2407626) Homepage Journal
    Public recognition of Visual Basic as a programming language by the /. crowd! Millions of Microsoft programmers, no longer afraid to talk about work at cocktail parties!

    • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:33PM (#2407642)
      The only reason you aren't publicly beaten right now is because of the political climate and the promotion of tolerance towards those that are different, regardless of how stupid they appear to be.

      Personally, I think we should declare a war against VB programmers after the war on terrorism is over.
  • AOL DSL (Score:2, Interesting)

    by xobyte (255771)
    I wonder if this could be used to make a login script for my sisters AOL DSL account. You have to login to AOL before you can use any tcpip...the modem says it is connected though.

    Why does my sister use AOL DSL...? I dunno. But she's an air traffic controller in the US Navy so I will forgive her for now.
  • What about mail? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JoeShmoe (90109) <askjoeshmoe@hotmail.com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:34PM (#2407645)
    In my opinion, logging on and enjoying AOL's so-called services was never 1/10 of the problem as their stupid crappy propritary mail system.

    Back around 1996 or so, I was part of an AOL beta program that released a MAPI interface for AOL mail servers. IE, you could add the AOL mail server to your Outlook config and download your AOL mail right into Outlook.

    Of course, the AOL exec freaked out when they considered how many eyeballs their advertisers would lose if everyone uninstalled the AOL client and kept their mail via Outlook. So the program was canned, and I was unfortunately too short-sighted to save a copy of that MAPI tool before the area was closed down.

    Ever since, I've been trying to get my sister/parents/grandparents off AOL. 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. So for years my relatives were forced to run a crappy 16-bit (Win 3.11) version of the AOL client for the sole purpose of checking e-mail.

    AOL's mail service is terrible but a lot of people don't want to change their e-mail addresses. If you really want to do a great services to help newbies move beyond their AOL shackles...please, I implore you:

    A) Reverse engineer the AOL mail protocol so that external programs can at least READ AOL mail (sending, unsending, and AOL custom features are optional)

    B) Reverse engineer the AOL mail database (local copy of stored mail) so that it can be imported into another program.

    Even after I got a couple family members to switch over to Hotmail, they still have to use the AOL client to read their old mail. It's that or save it all as flat text and lose all the important header information.

    Also, a bonus to reverse engineering the AOL mail database would be the ability to sync mail with your Palm. The AOL client for Palm is 400KB and can only dial-up, not sync.

    Please post reply if you know of any project working on the AOL mail/database formats. Thank you!

    - JoeShmoe
    • There is a work-around to AOL's proprietary email protocol. I think it's called e-netbot, and it works by connecting to AOL webmail, and downloading messages into Outlook Express. The program itself uses Internet Explorer components.
      • Yes, this is very, very good. That's a very smart idea. Seeing as how AOL caved to the pressure to have a webmail system, it seems only logical that someone would rip apart the HTML and figure out all the FORM POST commands necessary to fill in the proper boxes on AOL's mail page.

        http://www.enetbot.com/ for those also curious.

        Pity it's $20 shareware, but this is very good. That takes care of request A from my post...now can any clever soul provide a solution for converting/importing previous mail?

        - JoeShmoe
        • by fmaxwell (249001)
          Pity it's $20 shareware

          Why is it a "pity" that someone can try to earn a living by writing useful computer software? Should talented programmers write software for free and earn a living by flipping burgers or selling drugs? You should be damned glad that he's made a useful package and is only asking $20 for it.

          This whole "all software should be free" crap is really annoying the hell out of me. If someone wants to give away the software that they write for the good of some community, that's very noble, but that doesn't mean that everyone should. I have found that most of the people in the "free software movement" are actually a bunch of leeches that just want to get something for nothing. They don't write software and are frequently just computer users. They give nothing back to the community. But they are the first ones on the FTP site when any new piece of free software hits the platters.

          If you like the package, pay the guy $20. Then send him an e-mail thanking him for making it available for such a small price.
          • Re:Excellent! (Score:3, Insightful)

            by JoeShmoe (90109)
            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
    • Re:What about mail? (Score:5, Informative)

      by bkocik (17609) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:05PM (#2407847) Homepage
      A) Reverse engineer the AOL mail protocol so that external programs can at least READ AOL mail (sending, unsending, and AOL custom features are optional)

      It's just a set of IMAP servers. There's no secret about it. If you use Netscape 6.x, it gives you the option to set up an account to retrieve your AOL mail, and it does this by setting you up to do it via IMAP.

      imap.mail.aol.com


      (Yes, I'm an AOL employee)

    • Claris Emailer 1.x for Mac. It is the only email client I've seen that connects to AOL AND POP3. Still works today, though I haven't used it for more than playing with it in years.

      Of course, I can see why AOL doesn't want people doing this - I used this mainly as a tool for migrating to POP3! I would check AOL email once in a while, and whenever there was anything other than spam (rare) I would reply to it from my POP3 account.

    • by Rocketboy (32971) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:10PM (#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 StikyPad (445176) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:36PM (#2407652) Homepage
    A shame that AOL doesn't make this kind of information more easily available.

    A large amount of AOL's income is from advertisements. You're bombarded by them from the second you sign on, in every window you open, till you sign off. Salon might have adopted the mandatory ad viewing my friend, but they didn't invent it. AOL has been using these for years. Subscribers are forced to view several ads of "special offers" before they can even begin to navigate through the "service." It's like playing Where's Waldo trying to find the Close button on some of these windows. AOL doesn't want third parties designing software to be used on their networks because it would be detrimental to their advertising income. Fewer members using their software translates into fewer eyes viewing their ads, which reduces the value of their ad space. It's a safe bet that AOL will do everything in its power to ensure that people continue to use its software.
    • A large amount of AOL's income is from advertisements. You're bombarded by them from the second you sign on, in every window you open, till you sign off. Salon might have adopted the mandatory ad viewing my friend, but they didn't invent it. AOL has been using these for years. Subscribers are forced to view several ads of "special offers" before they can even begin to navigate through the "service." It's like playing Where's Waldo trying to find the Close button on some of these windows.

      Actually this is misinformation. There is a preference setting in AOL to allow you to turn off the Pop-Up ads. It's accesible from the preferences section of AOL, they just don't tell you about it. And why should they? AOL DOES make a lot of it's money from advertising.

      The AOL experience is not all ads. I would venture to say it is about equal to surfing the Web the amount of ads per screen space encountered. If it were, 32 million people would not love to use it.

      AOL doesn't want third parties designing software to be used on their networks because it would be detrimental to their advertising income. Fewer members using their software translates into fewer eyes viewing their ads, which reduces the value of their ad space. It's a safe bet that AOL will do everything in its power to ensure that people continue to use its software.

      Agreed.
    • So fix it... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Da VinMan (7669)
      You're absolutely correct. Not only do they have a captive audience, but they have an audience about whom they know a lot about.

      So, if the problem is "we can't use AOL from Linux, etc", then why don't they fix it? What's really stopping them from putting together a cross-platform Java (heck, or even C-based) GUI? That way, at least no one has an excuse to work around them.

      I do think they'll be forced to stomp on anyone producing other implementations of their client. Long-term though, it's not a battle they can win (especially if Linux does start getting used more by average/non-technical users).
  • by Paul Carver (4555) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:36PM (#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 swordboy (472941) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:44PM (#2407698) Journal
    Here is the simplified version of the protocol:

    void AOL()
    {
    while(connected)
    {
    send_advertisements();
    monitor_browsing_habits();
    monthly_fee++;
    if(bandwith_to_spare)
    send_internet_data();
    }
    return;
    }
  • by jgaynor (205453) <jon@@@gaynor...org> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:45PM (#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.
  • ROck On (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rinikusu (28164) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:50PM (#2407740)
    I can't wait for the first Linux-client. Why?

    The only thing about AOL that's worth anything are the chatrooms. Unlike IRC, you can actually meet real, low-self-esteemed, fat chicks who'll put out for anyone willing to pretend to listen to them whine about how no one likes them.

    I'd better stock up on condoms and twinkies, big dog is gettin' let out of the house...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:52PM (#2407749)
    (710)123-4567 is my phone line.
    (456)123-4567 is an AOLnet dialin. Numbers mutilated to protect the guilty, of course. A few years and many many area code splits ago, we were all one code. More than a few lusers are confused by Windows' concept of "dialing location" and area code settings, and apparently more than a few of them are AOLers.

    I get silent phone calls all the time, sometimes several in a row. Without fail, if I answer with a carrier, they connect.

    Sometimes if I send "login:" they talk back. I've never bothered to get farther than that.

    I've long dreamed of hacking up a barebones AOL emulator, just enough to push them a page that says "You dumbass, your area code settings are fux0red!" and then play some fart noises before dropping them.

    Yeah, this is gonna rock. Not only do I get to fuck with their heads, but I get a free supply of AOL l:/p: pairs delivered to my desktop! Never know when those might come in handy.
    • by Myself (57572) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:34PM (#2407962) Journal
      Why do I see a lukewarm future among kiddies of "number squatting", getting personal phone lines that're similar to national ISP dialins except for the area code?

      I also wonder about the legality of such a practice. The users are placing the call, right? I guess it depends on how different AOL's login procedure is from something standard. "No, Your Honor, that was my personal login so I could access my computer from my friend's house." Compare to the tone-detector that lets you use a redbox to turn appliances on and off.
  • by jellomizer (103300) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:54PM (#2407762)
    Even though AOL is not targeted at the Unix/Linux user. There could be good reasons why a Unix/Linux guy could want or need to use AOL.

    1. There are many kids out there who want to learn Linux and are allowed to setup a duel boot systems. But their parents are paying for AOL as an ISP and will not switch. So not at least they can switch the os and pay for one ISP.
    2. Emergancy Internet connection. Every once in a while your Internet connection goes down at the ISP level and you need a quick short term internet connection. Hay AOL give 1000 hours free internet for a month. And if you like me there are hundreds of those CDs with trial passwords around. It is tempoary free internet. Hey it may suck but it is better then nothing.

    3. Simular to #2 many new computers come with a year of Free AOL. You got the computer at a good price why pay for an other ISP when you can get AOL for free for a year.

    4. AOL only services. AOL has some services that other ISPs dont have. Although they are ways around them but sometimes they may be covient.

    5. The @AOL.com E-mail address. Those are easy to remember for most people (becasue they use AOL). And with the e-mail they can find your IM name quicker.

    I dont directly use AOL (I use RoadRunner own by AOL/TimeWarner) nor do I ever want to use AOL. But I just wanted to state they there are reasons why a UNIX/Linux person would want access to AOL. and they are people who can use Linux who dont care much about the proper geek way, they just want a good OS, or just to try something new. To say that All AOL users are Unix Ilerate or will always be that way is a gross overstatement.
  • PDF Format (Score:5, Informative)

    by 1010011010 (53039) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @02:57PM (#2407784) Homepage
    Here is the file in PDF, rather than "write" format:

    http://www.flyingbuttmonkeys.com/mirrors/The-AOL-P rotocol.pdf [flyingbuttmonkeys.com]

    • by connorbd (151811)
      You with the CueCat driver, and now this -- are you trying to be a shit magnet :-)

      Hats off, though... and hats off to the person who did it in the first place...

      /Brian
  • by BluePenguin (521713) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:06PM (#2407860) Homepage
    Amazingly, I'll put myself in the catagory of people who could use a Linux AOL client. Why?
    1. Because I'm a poor college student who's parents are still on AOL. Why pay for a second ISP when there's one available? Linux isn't a solution for them, but if I could dial up from the Linux Box in my room (Linux on the second cheap computer? I have the second cheap computer!), that'd make my life simpler.
    2. Who wants to reboot to a Win/9x partition, connect, DL kernel patch, reboot to linux partition... etc...
    3. Remember that AOL offers a nation wide network. So these days, that's nothing new. But think about moving every few years, and doing this six years ago. Want to hunt up a new ISP every time you move?
    4. If you've managed to keep an ISP (and e-mail address) for a few years, would you want to go through the hassle of chainging? There are alot of long time AOL users who cling to AOL just to keep their e-mail addresses. As they grow more comfortable with their computer they may even grow towards Linux. Being able to keep your ISP would make that decision easier.
    It's not about converting windows users to Linux because now they can keep AOL (though I think you may see some of that). It's about letting power users simplify thier life. (Single ISP for both the kids running windows and parents running linux (or the other way around!))

    Another possible effect could be an "Offical AOL For Linux". Which would be easier and less stressful in the long run, continually fighting off the third party connections, or writing an offical port to get people away from third party connection software?

  • Really... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Rob.Mathers (527086) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:08PM (#2407868) Homepage
    How many self-respecting Linux users would want to use AOL? Granted, there is a small appeal in saying "Hey i got AOL to work on Linux," but I imagine it would sorta wear thin after a minute or 2.
  • by doogieh (37062) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:08PM (#2407877) Homepage
    Better be careful. AOL may consider any unauthorized use of their servers as computer trespass - even if you are an AOL subscriber. (They can say via license "you are only authorized to use our servers using OUR software.")

    Thus, this information is aiding and abetting computer trespass. Slashdot and the authors may be liable retroactively under the new terrorism legislation (depending on the scope of the hacking provisions) with mandatory life sentences for giving aid to terrorists.

    By advocating an open AOL client for linux, given AOL's licensing terms, you are trying to change intellectual property policy, thus are "trying to change government policy through computer trespass" under the PATRIOT act, USA act, or whatever they are calling it now.

    While this scenario seems crazy, keep in mind that this is literally within the scope of (some versions of) the terrorism legislation.

    Conclusion: "You've got jail!"
  • finally! (Score:3, Funny)

    by HappyDrgn (142428) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:31PM (#2407939) Homepage
    /dev/aol anyone?
  • by audacity242 (324061) <(moc.oohay) (ta) (242yticadua)> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:33PM (#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
  • by jesup (8690) <randellslashdot@nOspAM.jesup.org> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:47PM (#2408020) Homepage
    The AOL protocol described is a modification of the old (1984) PlayNet error-correction and data communication protocol I devised (with some input from Steve Bohram, but it was mostly my design based on the Tannenbaum networking book).

    CRC-16 was used because modems (300 baud) didn't have any error correction, and we could use tables to process the data 16 bits at a time without using too much memory or CPU (the servers were 12MHz 68010's).

    Packets all ended in hex 0D because we were using Telenet and Tymnet X25 dial-in pads in line-buffered mode, because we were charged by the packet. We also munged the other fields to avoid 0D (that may be gone now). Also, they were limited to 256 byte lines; thus the length byte instead of something longer.

    Bytes 6 & 7 (which the author doesn't understand) are sequence numbers used in the sliding-window error-correction protocol.

    The two-character ASCII prefixes were the actual message types for data packets, and were the input to a multi-tasking state-machine language. EM for example was (IIRC) part of email, perhaps to turn on the 'MAIL' icon. (I forget all the codes, I'm afraid).
    Z on the front seems to be an AOL addition.

    I was at PlayNet from Feb '84 to Feb '86 (when we declared bankruptcy). AOL licensed the PlayNet software from us for a song when we were running out of money, and rebranded it QuantumLink (and made minor mods, many of which we did for them).
    PlayNet ran out of money in Feb '86, though the service continued to remain up for the 1500-3000 subs for another year or two.

    PlayNet got a cut of AOL gross revenues until they finally wiggled out of it right before launching America Online (a port of the software to the PC with considerable enhancement), at which point PlayNet's bankruptcy was closed.

    The servers were Stratus fault-tolerant machines, and as of 3 years ago they were still using them.

    They didn't manage to change the 10-character limit on usernames until a few years ago. That limit was because of the 40-character width of the C64 screen, a ',' between each name, 16(?) characters for the room name plus a space, and we wanted N (12? 15?) users in a chat room. The result was that there were 10 characters available for the username.

    The algorithm in AOL for selecting usernames that resulted in JohnQ12345 was also part of the old PlayNet (server) software. Also the default initial passwords for "marketing" accounts (i.e. the free disks) of "word-word" is another thing thought up over lunch at PlayNet that still hasn't changed.

    Many things have been added & changed - but far more than I ever expected remains the same. I figured they'd dropped the ECC protocol ages ago.

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

      by Hollins (83264)
      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.
  • AOL now sucks less (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Apreche (239272) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @03:52PM (#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.
  • Alternate Clients (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LagDemon (521810) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:07PM (#2408121) Homepage
    I keep hearing people say that the reason there are no alternate AOL clients is that AOL changes the protocol if it decides people are using alternate clients. However, as far as i can tell, the only way AOL can see what client you are using is through the identification packet that is sent during logon. If the client is designed to properly fudge the identification, AOL would never know, and in fact they'd think you were using a plain old AOL client.

    Can someone please tell me if i understand this properly?
  • by IGnatius T Foobar (4328) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:15PM (#2408183) Homepage Journal
    This spec could be terribly useful for anyone who wants to write a program to migrate a user's e-mail (or even their settings, etc.) to a new service.

    Or better yet -- think about this: with this spec, an AOL module could be written for fetchmail. Suck down the mail from that old AOL account and deliver it via SMTP. Cool, eh?
  • by phillymjs (234426) <slashdot.stango@org> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @04:27PM (#2408250) Homepage Journal
    Back in 1995, Claris introduced Emailer [macemail.com], a Mac e-mail client application that could retrieve AOL mail, along with many other kinds of mail accounts. Development was continued on it for about 3 years or so, but it became an orphan when Claris became Filemaker, Inc [filemaker.com] and divested itself of non-database products. It was neglected and finally end-of-lifed by Apple in November 1998 at version 2.0v3. Most of the team that created it went on to develop Outlook Express for the Mac, which does not do AOL mail because AOL decided to stop licensing out the protocol. I can only assume that AOL realized they could make more money by forcing everyone to use their shitty built-in mail client and bombarding them with paid advertisements the entire time, than by licensing out the protocol to other software companies creating clean, elegantly-designed mail clients.

    Six years later, Emailer still works great on Mac OS 9.x, and the original developers do not believe it should break under OS X. I still use it (as do a lot of people) and I still think it's the best mail client I've ever used, because it doesn't do HTML mail. Nothing but pure, speedy text.

    ~Philly
  • by smart2000 (28662) <karl@karlkraft.com> on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:13PM (#2408453) Homepage
    Grossly overlooked in all the posts I've seen so far is the fact that this also will allow you to write a new AOL server. So you could piggyback on AOLs carpet bombing of free CDs by having people just dial up a new number, and get GnuAOL.
  • AOL version 2.5? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by alcohollins (64804) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:39PM (#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.

  • by llzackll (68018) on Tuesday October 09, 2001 @05:59PM (#2408616)
    This has all been done years ago. Check out www.pengaol.org [pengaol.org] it's in french, but there is an english version also. PengAOL is under active development. There are a few others that were under development a few years ago, but are no longer around. There is not much as far as an interface to aol areas yet cause would need to interpret FDO script language, but they will allow you to establish an internet connection with your aol account from linux.

    If you want more info from other sites, just use this google search [google.com].

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