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AOL Part II: Breaking down the wall

AOL’s own webmaster.info pages are your first stop for solving common incompatibility problems. AOL Part II: Breaking down the wall AOL’s own webmaster.info pages are your first stop for solving common incompatibility problems.

A reader had an interesting response to my last column about AOL: He likened AOL to Budweiser. While people are not yet stopping at the local watering hole for a frosty mug of AOL, AOL is as American as Bud.

Why? “Budweiser was the first to reach the American need for consistent, easy to find, reasonable tasting, reasonably priced beer,” he wrote. AOL has done the same for Web access, and web developers, like it or not, have to deal with it.

And there is a lot not to like. As I pointed out last week, AOL would be very pleased to return to the walled garden model of its early existence. The greater Internet is a problem for AOL, as it is difficult to control and filter. But that doesn’t stop it from trying. How much fun have you had trying to get your dynamic pages updated through AOL’s proxy servers? How about implementing name-based virtual hosting? Yes, it does finally work with AOL browsers, but how needlessly long did that take? And don’t get me started on page layout issues.

Since AOL does not like the Internet and will not actively help its users get to your site, you’ve got to do all you can to lead those viewers to you. But, never let it be said that you don’t have friends inside the wall. Take a look at webmaster.info, a site put together by AOL to help explain why it doesn’t play well with others and how to go about rectifying some common problems. I found this site overall to be marginally useful, but the sections on caching and the AOLTV StyleGuide were interesting. Most helpful was the browser compatibility chart, which answers those burning questions about which features work with which AOL browsers.

Obviously, you should try to test your pages on AOL just as you doubtless check them on IE and Netscape on the Mac and PC. Yes, it’s more work, but think of yourself as a liberator. By offering pages to AOL users that work properly, you are helping to lead AOL’s inhabitants out from behind the wall.

Garth Gillespie is architect and chief technologist of ComputerUser.com.

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