I see that Microsoft has paid AOL $1 billion for their patents, and it’s made me nervous, because I own Microsoft stock, and I was once an AOL customer, until I couldn’t take all the screwups any longer. I wrote about it for the LA Times magazine and dug it out to remind Microsoft who they are dealing with. Here it is:
I’m free. Free at last! And yes, thank God Almighty, after six and a half years of being infected by viruses, inundated with spam, having my address book adding addresses I wasn’t putting in myself, unable to edit out those addresses because the system was always being “updated,” being closed down when trying to open up, sent messages from the electronic gods above that it’s all the service’s fault, calling for technical support and being put on hold for ten and twenty minutes, speaking to people in India who cannot fathom the degree of frustration which brought on the call, being cut off without a number to call back, I have finally turned down every new offer they tried to sell me, every reduction in fees from $26.95 to $21.95 to $14.95 to $9 a month; I’ve told AOL I couldn’t take it any longer. Not after this last 3 ½ hour long episode which ended, as so many of my liaisons with them have ended, unsatisfactorily. So now, finally and forever, I’m free of AOL. At last!
It was harder than a marriage to end. I kept seeing the problems and tried dealing with them. I listened to the people trained so well to calm me down and promise me all would be well when I called to cancel. They gave me their name. They told me how lucky I was to have got them on the line, because they understood my frustrations. They spoke in such a soothing manner. Then, after agreeing to keep the service, they would pass me on to their technical support, and as I was put on hold I would think, why is this happening again? Why can’t I just kick this habit? Why couldn’t I see the writing on the wall when my Time Warner stock went from $90 a share to $12 after they merged with AOL?
But it wasn’t an easy habit to kick. I wasn’t a computer geek. I got used to seeing my personal portfolio set up in a certain way. I got used to listening to the voice telling me I had mail. I barely used any of the other services, but it didn’t matter. The program was installed in my computer, I just needed to turn it on, I was down to paying just $9 a month. So I ignored my more computer savvy friends who told me to get rid of AOL, because there were too many problems. Too many hackers who screw around with it. Too much spam which gets through. But I wouldn’t listen. Not even when my website master, a young man whose fingers danced over a keyboard the way Horowitz’s used to dance over a Steinway grand. He told me never to send him an e-mail from AOL, because he wouldn’t open it. He told me, when my hard drive crashed and he couldn’t put it back together because it was just too infected, that I had to get another service. Did I listen? No.
Those soothing women in the cancellation department wouldn’t let me leave. They gave me six months free service. They extolled the virtues of the next upgrade. They were the sirens that kept me crashing into perilous waters.
When I had a problem that seemed insurmountable, I called the technical service and was put through to someone in India. He told me I would have to reinstall the system. He had me go through numerous tasks…and then our phone connection died before he could give me a case number. So I couldn’t refer to one when I called back. Somehow I managed to get the system up and running (with a little help from some friends). And then it happened again.
This time I clocked on the triangular symbol on my desktop and the computer just shut down with a warning that a “serious error” had occurred. I reported the error to my server and they told me it was caused by a problem with AOL. So I called there and after twenty minutes, repeating my information, my mother’s last name, my pet’s name, the color of my socks, I got someone in Bangalore City, India. “My name is Shaysh,” he said. It sounded like he was swallowing some liquid so I asked him to spell it. “S-A-T-I-S-H,” he spelled.
I tried to be friendly, but I was straight with him. “Satish, I’ve gone through this before, I’ve talked to someone in New Delhi and halfway through whatever he was trying to get me to do we lost our connection. So could you give me your direct line so I can call you back if that happens?”
“We can’t do that sir.”
“Then can I give you my number and you can call me?
“We have no outside calling lines,” he said.
“This is not a good way to do business, Satish.”
“I understand sir. Now, what is your problem?”
I told him how my computer shuts down when I try to click onto AOL. He said he had never heard of such a problem and asked me to click on right then. I did and it shut down. Big surprise. So he had me go first into my programs, then into my settings, onto the control panel, into my C-drive. We were going all over the place trying to figure out why this was happening. He asked me to find AOL in the ADD/REMOVE section of the control panel. There it was. All 119KB. He said we will uninstall it and then reinstall it. I clicked to remove it and a little box came up saying my computer could not find AOL.
He said we must clean up the programs that aren’t useful, so he took me to another area of the computer where there were 35 programs listed. He said I only needed seven of them and should delete the others. So I started to delete the others and hit one which caused a large red X to come up with a warning that my computer would shut down in 30 seconds. And it started doing a countdown.
“What’s going on Satish?” I asked. “Is my computer going to explode at 0?”
“Not to worry,” he said. “Let it close down and we will open it again and go to another place.”
We did. AOL still couldn’t be found. It was hiding, like a stealth bomber. It was in the computer but it wasn’t showing itself. It didn’t want to be terminated.
“We need to SCAN the computer,” he said, “and then to Defragment. This will take time. Maybe a few hours.”
“A few hours!” I said. “Look, Satish, this has gone too far…I just want to get rid of AOL. I want to get it out of my computer and not reinstall it.”
“First we must find it,” he said. “So write this down.”
He proceeded to have me write down instructions of what I should do to scan and then defragment. Obviously we couldn’t stay on the phone for a few hours, so I would have to do this myself.
“I’m not comfortable doing this on my own,” I said. “What if I press the wrong key? What if I screw something up?”
“Not to worry,” he said. “Let me get you on with my supervisor and he will reassure you.”
He put me on hold for ten minutes, as I started Scanning. Then his supervisor came on. I told him I wanted to opt out of AOL but needed to find it to uninstall it. He started to talk…and then we got cut off. The line went dead. I had no case number to refer to because Satish never gave me one. I was in the middle of scanning but not sure what to do about defragmenting, or what to do after defragmenting. I didn’t know what defragmenting was.
So I called AOL again. Went through all the identification rituals and waited ten more minutes for someone to come on. This time though I was calling to cancel. And on came the sweet voice of senior consultant Edlina. “Don’t worry about a thing,” she said, “you’re lucky to reach me. I can solve your problem and get you to the right person.”
“My problem is that I don’t want you to try and keep me as a customer. I’ve been with you for over six years and I can’t take it anymore. I can’t afford all these wasted hours.”
“I understand your frustration,” she said. “Can I get you to a technician who will work with you?
“Only if you can find one in this country. I don’t want to talk to any more Indians. I’m not prejudiced—I’ve been to India, I like the people. I’ve had Indian students. But I can’t always understand what they’re saying to me, and I always seem to get cut off while in the middle of an operation.”
I was listening to myself talking and thinking: my god, I’m becoming anti-Indian. I was experiencing the end result of outsourcing jobs. I didn’t like hearing what I was saying, especially since I think Edlina was also Indian. But I was at my wit’s end. My computer was still in the scanning mode, it had completed four of the five steps, I was getting close to the defragmenting portion of my problem and I was nervous.
Edlina switched me to the technical department and after ten more minutes Frank came on.
“Are you in the United States Frank?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can you call me back if we get disconnected?
“Afraid I can’t.”
“Can you open a case number so I can refer to it if that happens?”
“Can you talk me through this fast?”
“If you’re still scanning, then it’s going to take a long time to defragment. Probably a few hours.”
“Then you go to the control panel, click on Add/Remove, find AOL, and remove it.”
“What if the box comes up again saying it’s not in my computer?”
“Then you will have to install from the disc, and uninstall it.”
“I don’t have a disc.”
“They’re in supermarkets.”
“I have to go to a supermarket?”
“But if I install it, then I’m uninstalling that one. What about the one that is hiding in my computer?”
Frank got quiet. He knew more about this then he was letting on. He knew that the stealth AOL living in some Afghani cave portion of my hard drive was not going to come out easily.
“Let’s take it a step at a time,” he said. “I’m sure once you have defragmented you will be able to uninstall our program.”
“Before we hang up Frank, tell me what defragmenting does?”
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “It takes apart all your programs and reassembles them.”
Why I needed to do this, he didn’t say. I didn’t ask. I have no idea why I need to do any of the things that go on inside my computer.
I hung up with Frank, clicked on the Defragment box once the scanning was completed, left my desk and went to watch the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Three hours later I returned to my computer. The computer was defragmented. I thought I even smelled anise coming from the speakers, but that was just a fantasy. I went to the control panel and tried to remove AOL. I was told that it didn’t exist inside my computer.
I called the next day and told the lovely new voice that I wanted out. I didn’t care about saving my address book, about saving my personal finance portfolio, about the forty e-mails I had yet to respond to. I didn’t want to install any more AOL into my computer so I could uninstall it later. I would live with the sneaky system hiding inside. I wouldn’t be happy about it. Most likely it would pop out when I least expected it and steal a few files or folders. But unless I bought a new computer, I would just have to accept the fact that we were never going to find that stealth AOL-in-hiding. I didn’t care any longer. I just wanted to imagine my freedom. Even if it wasn’t real. I just wanted to be able to shout it out to my books, my paintings, my chairs, my desk, and my computer that I was free. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I was free at last!