The new service, which lets AOL members access their email via the Web, currently runs only on computers using Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system and Internet Explorer Web browser. Ironically, the same day AOL announced NetMail to attendees of the fall Internet World '97 trade show, the judge in the Justice Department's case against Microsoft issued a temporary order forbidding Microsoft from requiring Windows 95 licensees to carry the Internet Explorer Web browser. (See related story)
NetMail is further limited by its inability to cross many corporate firewalls, shutting out a large portion of one of the groups AOL has targeted as potential NetMail users: members who want to access their private AOL accounts from work.
But AOL foresees wider accessibility for the service, which is currently in its beta phase. The company says it is working on the firewall problem. And users of rival Netscape's Navigator browser, who currently make up the majority of Web surfers, can only use NetMail if they install a plug-in for ActiveX controls. AOL says those users will be able to access NetMail without plug-ins in February, when a Java version of the service is scheduled for release.
Despite the Java promise of being able to run anywhere, however, AOL's senior vice president of new products, David Gang, acknowledged that Windows 3.1 users will face problems with that version. "It's not the world's greatest situation for our friends using Windows 3.1," he said.
Also left in NetMail limbo are Macintosh users. "There's no definite plan for the Mac as of today," said Gang.
More relief for non-Win 95/IE users will come once the service is available in HTML. But that won't happen for at least six months, according to Gang.
NetMail's limited compatibility with various operating systems and browsers stems from the fact that the service, unlike other Web-based email services such as Hotmail and GeoCities, was not written in HTML originally. The reason for that, according to Gang, is that basic HTML could not provide users with the AOL features, look, and feel to which users are accustomed.
"NetMail is not a free email service," said Gang. "When we started the process, we wanted to deliver AOL email and the AOL interface to our members. That was our first goal."
Even when the HTML version becomes available, most users will still opt for the non-HTML features, said Gang.
AOL has posted a page listing various problems with NetMail.