AOL Design Tips — solutions for the designer's nightmare
What's curious to me, Rob Peters, is why AOL is so successful at convincing people to pay them premium rates for a problem-riddled, advertisement-filled product. Compared to using free browsers like Internet Explorer or Netscape or other non-AOL browsers, AOL is slow to load, slow to close, throws lots of annoying popup advertisements at you, and costs double what you might pay for non-AOL dialup. So why do people continue to patronize AOL?

Presumably, many people who use AOL do so because they were introduced to it when they first started using a computer and don't know that there are cheaper, better alternatives. Eventually you might want to dispense with AOL entirely and find a cheaper internet service provider that would allow you to directly use Internet Explorer or Netscape (or other browsers). Most of the services provided by AOL, such as news, stock information, and instant messaging, are also provided by Internet Explorer (through MS Network) and other browsers for free. By using a native browser you can load your browser more quickly and avoid the deluge of ads on AOL.

For reasons known only to AOL, the AOL browser has a number of characteristics that make life difficult for both AOL members and web designers. Some common features that work with any other browser do not work with AOL. In some cases, designers can work around the AOL problems, in others they cannot, so the AOL members are stuck with poor functionality. The problem is exacerbated because AOL does not provide support for designers other than a poorly maintained web site, nor does it document many of these problems. The following tips for developers are based on days of experimentation by us to find work-arounds. Non-developers may also find description of these problems interesting in that they may recognize functionality problems they have experienced.

Caching
To save bandwidth, AOL caches pages on its own servers and then gives your browser the saved version. This means that the version of a web page you are seeing on your browser may not be up-to-date. Note that emptying the browser cache on the computer you are using will not solve this problem because you are still being served an old version of the page by AOL.

This problem is only critical for pages that change content frequently. We ran into a serious problem when designing an on-site instant messaging system. When a message was sent, frequently an old message from hours before was served by AOL. Although AOL documentation says that the designer can force new pages to be served by specifying "no-cache" in the HTTP headers, this does not work. We found a solution based on the fact that AOL is currently using the page Title to determine whether or not to serve a cached version. By generating a random number and attaching it to the title, AOL can be forced to serve a new version of the page. For example, the first instant message might have the title "page_number_487983" and the next message the title "page_number_289732." Note that putting a random number into the URL does not work.

Javascript problems
We recommend that you avoid programming dependent on Javascript Focus() and Blur() methods. AOL does not interpret these commands normally. If you open a daughter window in AOL, and then attempt to change focus, AOL treats the entire AOL browser window as the window in question. For example, let's say you've created code in which a daughter window loses focus using the Blur method. With Internet Explorer or Netscape, blurring the daughter will return focus to the Opener. In AOL, focus will be lost for the entire AOL browser, and your screen will show a text editor or whatever other program you might have open in addition to your browser.

Turned off popup windows
Netscape version 7.1, gives users that ability to turn off many popup windows for all sites or particular sites. User-activated popups, opened when a user clicks a link or button, will continue to work. Popups activated on Javascript onLoad or other automatic triggers will not work if popups are shut off. This can cause serious problems for sites which depend on popups to provide help or content for users. The best solution we've found is to detect whether a visitor is using AOL, and if so advising them how to turn on popup windows for the site. AOL's designer support site has instructions for detecting whether popups have been turned off and requesting the user to turn them back on for the particular site.

AOL display limitations
In order to save space, by default, AOL compresses photos and other graphics before displaying them so their color may be distorted. Click here for an informative article about problems with AOL from another site.

Failure to maintain handle of open windows in Javascript
We frequently design popup windows that close automatically when focus returns to the parent window. Users therefore do not have to worry about closing windows and do not end up with multiple open daughter windows. When the window is opened, the window is assigned to a Javascript variable as a handle. However, AOL apparently does not keep track of these handles and subsequent scripts cannot access the daughter windows for closing or other manipulation. The best solution seems to be provision of a manual close button. The button can be hidden from non-AOL users by detecting AOL with Javascript or a server-side script like PHP.

Page size problem
Whenever a popup window opens in AOL, the main window resizes itself so that it does not fill the entire width of the screen. This is true for any site you are viewing with AOL, including AOL's own site. Therefore, it makes sense to design pages for AOL that fit the AOL standard width. Otherwise, the user will have to manually enlarge the main window after a popup opens. You can manually enlarge a window by clicking the Maximize icon in the top right corner of the window.

Partial solution to window resize problem.
On some versions of AOL, the user can partially fix the resize problem with AOL settings. Tell the users to do the following:

  1. In AOL, navigate to the site you want to view
  2. Make sure the widow is full size. You may have to enlarge it manually by clicking the Maximize icon in the top right corner of the open window.
  3. On the AOL top menu bar, click Window > Remember Window Size and Position.

Encourage users to use Internet Explorer or Netscape
On sites where AOL does not allow full functionality, I detect the presence of AOL and then suggest the user download a stand-alone browser.

The user can connect with AOL and then to open a non-AOL browser like Internet Explorer or Netscape. I remind users that when using this method they will still pay normal monthly connection charge to AOL. Here's what to tell them after they've installed IE or NS:

  1. Open AOL to connect to the Internet like usual
  2. Minimize AOL by clicking the minus sign in the top right corner of the AOL browser
  3. Open Internet Explorer (or Netscape) by clicking the icon for the browser on your desktop
  4. Return to your site by typing the URL in the address box on the browser.

Download Internet Explorer or Netscape

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Copyright 2003 ScareCrow Creations, Inc. All rights reserved.