This confusion is quite understandable, since America Online routinely misleads it's members into believing that this commercial service is a direct Internet provider. The new browser interface and Internet address bar in version 4.0, displayed prominently from every window, is testament to this ruse that you're connected to the Internet. While America Online is a great online company, it is not a direct Internet connection.
In fact, when you log onto America Online, you're connected to a vast commercial network in Vienna, VA where you can avail yourself of the hundreds of proprietary services offered by AOL online. Travel, News, Sports, Finance, Games, Chat, Lifestyle, and Shopping, for example, are all topics of interest that have unique offerings on AOL.
America Online gives members access to its version of the Internet and World Wide Web as one of their many "channels", but it's still not a direct Internet connection. It is the Internet, ala America Online. While you may access the same sites that others with a direct connection can access, you often don't "see" the same thing due to differences in the browser software.
Remember, the browser is your window to the Internet. It is merely a software tool that allows you to view the collection of hypertext and hypermedia documents on the Internet, that is collectively referred to as the World Wide Web. Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer are both examples of browser software. America Online uses a hybrid form of Internet Explorer as its browser, licensed from Microsoft.
America Online enables access to Internet content, but it is not an Internet Services Provider, or ISP, in the pure sense. In comparison, an ISP sells direct Internet access, which generally includes a browser and e-mail client. That's it. Simply a connection or socket to the Internet. There are literally thousands of ISPs, local, regional and national, who will sell you direct Internet access that is often cheaper and faster than AOL's service. The most comprehensive listing of ISPs can be found at The List, http://thelist.internet.com/. Once you make your direct connection, you're on your own to seek out information and topics of interest on the Net.
Don't feel lost or stranded, however, at the prospect of forging out into cyberspace alone. Today there are many good home pages, or "portals", on the Net that mimic the AOL channel structure. Snap!, http://www.snap.com, is my default home page and a perfect starting point for any Net traveler.
From here, I can perform a text search, or hunt for information through special interest categories. Local weather is featured as well as national news headlines. Snap! Finance has extensive business news and stock market watchers will love the Personal Portfolio option that is updated every 15 minutes. Yellow pages, white pages, maps, directions, chat, horoscope and many other features are also available through Snap!
Snap! is not a fee-based service, but simply a Web site that acts as a starting point for Internet use. Yahoo! Excite, and Lycos are also excellent Web portals. To set your own home page preferences, do the following: Using Internet Explorer 5.0, choose Tools, Internet Options and then enter the Internet address to use as your default home page. From Netscape 4.0, you'll find these same options under Edit, Preferences. You can even set these Web portals as "Home" in America Online, by choosing Members, Preferences, WWW.
Choosing between AOL and an ISP for your online activities is strictly a matter of personal preference. If you're using America Online and enjoy the many excellent services this companies offers, then you've made the right choice. If, however, you're using AOL strictly for e-mail and Internet content, your money would be better spent with a direct Internet Services Provider.
I'm truly not an AOL-basher, since I use both AOL and a direct Internet connection. It's important, however, for the consumer to understand the difference between the two, in order to make informed decisions when paying for online services.