January 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 1

Product Evaluation

Online the Easy Way? A Review of America Online 6.0 and MSN Explorer

You're looking for that perfect online service; the one that's easy to use, does all the work for you, and your whole family will enjoy using. Your kids insist America Online (AOL) is the only one that will do. But you've heard how inaccessible it is to users of assistive technology (see the March 2000 AccessWorld for more details). You've heard a little about the Microsoft Network (MSN) Explorer but assume it might be the same. Should you try one of these? Should you get a regular Internet service provider (ISP)? Let's look at what AOL and MSN Explorer have to offer. But first, a little background.

Getting online

To get on the Internet at all you need a few things. For this article, we'll assume you've decided to use your Windows-based computer complete with appropriate assistive technology (a screen reader, perhaps). You'll also need a modem or other Internet connection and—here's the confusing part—an ISP. What the ISP does, for the most part, is let you get connected to the rest of the world through its computers and other equipment. The ISP might also provide you with software to run on your computer.

Generic Internet Access

What we're calling a "regular ISP" is a no-frills Internet service provider that lets you get online. Its main, sometimes sole, function is to give you access to the Internet. It usually gives you software, but you can also use software of your own choosing. So, if you sign up for service through Concentric, that company might send you a CD with Netscape Communicator. You can use it as a coffee coaster (it has a hole in the middle, so it doesn't work very well) and use Internet Explorer for browsing and Eudora Pro for e-mail if that's what you prefer. The ISP won't know or care. If you can figure out the details, you can read web pages, send and receive e-mail, and do lots of other online activities available to anybody else with any other generic online service.


AOL gives you access to the Internet. In that respect it is an ISP. AOL gives you lots of other services and content. It also gives you software that you must use to access the AOL service and many aspects of the Internet. For many parts of the service, it is not possible to substitute your preferred software for what AOL provides.

MSN Explorer

MSN Explorer is a piece of software. MSN is an online service, vaguely similar to AOL. You sign up with MSN and have access to the Internet and lots of other special features. But MSN Explorer, the software, can be used with a generic ISP. So, you don't have to sign up for MSN to use the MSN Explorer software.

Why would you prefer AOL or MSN Explorer over the more general software? First, AOL has content. Maybe you want some of the puzzles or newspapers it offers at no extra charge. Or perhaps you live in a place where you don't have a good alternative. The more common reason, though, is that AOL and MSN Explorer appear to do far more hand-holding than a generic ISP. If you're a techno-geek, you probably don't want your hand held. But, if hand-holding sounds good, let's consider what AOL and MSN Explorer are really doing for users of assistive technology.


The American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) technology lab has spent a lot of time with AOL in the past. We've done two other evaluations of the service and software (in the March 2000 AccessWorld and the August 1998 Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness) and found it in the past to be extraordinarily inaccessible. AOL had the compound problem of having both inaccessible software and inaccessible content. Recently, AOL released AOL 6.0. Is it more accessible?

Following the recent settlement agreement in the suit filed by the National Federation of the Blind alleging that their service was inaccessible to people who are blind, AOL did several general things to improve their system. For example, AOL used Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) in parts of the software. MSAA is a set of programming codes by which a screen reader and a program can "communicate." Several popular screen readers use MSAA extensively to get information from such programs as Internet Explorer, Microsoft Excel, and Lotus Notes.

AOL also added and improved keyboard access to parts of the software. In AOL 5.0 it was not possible to tab to many items, making it absolutely necessary to use the mouse to do many basic activities. AOL labeled many items, especially buttons. Did these improvements translate into actual benefit to users?

I Do Have Mail!

One of the most essential Internet activities is e-mail. With AOL 5.0, e-mail was nearly impossible to use with even the best screen readers, and the simplest of tasks required advanced skill in using screen readers or eyesight or both.

E-mail is the area of greatest improvement in AOL 6.0. Here, buttons are labeled and messages can be deleted or filed reliably. (I hate it when I get those two tasks mixed up!) Messages are easy to read, although it is necessary to arrow down through all the header information ("From," "Date," "Subject," and lots more) to get to the body of the message. "Reply," "Forward," and some other functions are in a group of buttons that are difficult to reach. It appears to be necessary to click on one of them to make any of them available to the keyboard. Except for a few difficulties, using one of the screen readers that uses MSAA (JAWS for Windows, Window Bridge, and Window-Eyes, for example), AOL's e-mail system was quite usable.

Browsing the World Wide Web

Reading web pages on the Internet (not within AOL's content areas) can be done two ways. Once you've connected to AOL you can bring up the browser of your choice. This is how generic ISPs work, so if you have a browser that works well with your assistive technology or are using a specialized browser, you can continue to use it.

The other way of browsing is by using the software that AOL provides. This is one big program that serves all your online needs. It resembles Internet Explorer and in many ways works the same way, but is not entirely compatible with all screen readers. I had quite a lot of trouble with it freezing during testing and had to make a number of screen reader adjustments to improve the way this browser spoke. I found it much more expedient to simply run my trusty off-the-shelf browsers.


AOL features a way for groups to discuss designated (or less clearly designated) topics. In general, the way they work is a user selects a topic from a list and is dropped into an ongoing or scheduled chat. On one side of the screen are scrolling messages from participants, each preceded by the "speaker's" screen name. On the other side are a list of participants and a set of controls for adding sound effects and other features.

The chat window is extremely unwieldy to use with speech. It is possible to move from the discussion window to the list of participants using the keyboard, and the new version offers the added feature of being able to easily arrow down through the list of names. However, the scrolling of the screen makes it difficult for the speech user to catch all parts of the conversation. Adding a cursor to the chat section of the window would allow users to arrow around in the text of recent discussion to see exactly what had been said.

The best technique I found for following the dialog was to use a screen reader feature to designate the bottom of the chat panel, the spot where new messages usually appeared, as one to read with a hot key, to hear the most recent comment or two. When messages came rapidly one after another, however, I missed several. So, to quickly "freeze" action and read what had been said, I copied and pasted the text into Notepad and then arrowed up through recent comments. This was inefficient, but made it possible to understand exactly what everyone had said. Unfortunately, it meant that my responses could never be timely.

Instant Messages

Here's most likely what your kids are really looking for when they insist they must have AOL. This feature lets AOL members communicate in "real time" by typing messages to each other. A charming tone indicates that an Instant Message is coming to you. The Instant Message window has a section in which the conversation accumulates and a place to type your response. There are buttons for send; cancel; "get profile," which allows you to see information about the person communicating with you (if they've created a profile); and "tell AOL," which lets you report misconduct, such as a person asking for your credit card number. With AOL 5.0, the older version, these buttons all worked as all the buttons in AOL did: Tab to the button you wish and press the space bar to activate it. They were all labeled appropriately. In AOL 6.0, we've taken a tiny step backwards; the buttons work, but the last two are not labeled.

When your computer makes a sound to let you know that your buddy has sent another comment in the ongoing conversation, you can easily tab to the area with the accumulated comments. Unfortunately, there is no cursor, and recent comments are likely not read by your screen reader, so to hear what was just sent to you it is necessary to either use your screen reading review commands or use my inefficient Notepad cut-and-paste trick. To grab the last flurry of comments from your buddy, do this: Tab 5 times (or Shift-Tab once) to get to the pane containing the conversation. Press Control-A to select all the text in the text area. Press Control-C to copy the text. Switch to Notepad. Press Control-V to paste the text. Read the current line using your screen reader's appropriate command. Press Up-Arrow to hear the previous line. This method is crude but effective if your buddy is patient.

Getting Help

Would you like to know how to get around in AOL? Somewhere, there must be a list of keyboard commands. For example, we know, of course, that Control-K brings up the keyword dialog box. And, of course, Spacebar activates a button (don't use Enter as you might in most Windows programs. That can have catastrophic effects.) And, we've figured out that Control-Tab moves from one open window to another and that Control-F4 closes the current window. What else is available?

I pressed F1 for Help and found that it was easy and effective to type in words and get a simple list of more-or-less relevant topics. So, after just looking around in the help system for instructions on how to use AOL with the keyboard, I tried searching for "keyboard," "keys," "accessibility," "accessible," "disability," "blind," "hot keys," and a number of terms I thought reasonable people might try, but to no avail. By typing in "screen reader," I did find instructions on how to copy a file necessary for use with JAWS from the AOL folder to the JFW folder, which was very helpful. No list of keyboard commands was ever found.

MSN Explorer

Nearly everything in MSN Explorer is done in one big browser-style window. Throughout the browser area, MSAA was used. So, users accustomed to using a screen reader with Internet Explorer will feel somewhat at home.

The browser window is partitioned into sections that can be reached using the F6 key. So, if you're looking at a web site and want to listen to music at the same time, you can press F6 until you land in the media player, then press Enter on the "Play" button.

It is apparent that Microsoft has put a great deal of effort into the accessibility of this product. The toolbar (there is no traditional menu) can be reached via the keyboard, and each item is spoken by those screen readers using MSAA. Unfortunately, the program behaves sluggishly using a screen reader and many controls, especially in the e-mail interface, don't work correctly via the keyboard. When using the toolbar via the keyboard, it is easy to get lost. Some items can only be found by moving forward (Tab), but others are only available by moving backward (Shift-Tab), and in either direction you simply run off the toolbar and back to the web page, never finding all the items.


MSN Explorer provides e-mail service via a browser-based e-mail program. The advantage of this system over your usual e-mail is that the messages stay on a server and you can read them from any machine to which you have access. So, if you don't have your own computer but must rely on the one at the public library, you can log in, read your e-mail, and sign off without leaving your messages behind at the library. The disadvantage of this system is that the browser-based interface is quite inefficient to use compared with Eudora, Outlook, or Outlook Express—three popular and speech-friendly e-mail packages.

Composing an e-mail message was quite an ordeal using MSN Explorer and speech. The link to "write" the message was easy to select, but the fields to complete were not all labeled. It was not possible to know when the cursor was in the area designated for typing the body of the message (press Tab twice after filling in the subject). After composing the message, the "Send" button was difficult to locate. It did not seem to be in the same place every time, or it was not always present.

Browsing the World Wide Web

General browsing using MSN Explorer worked well. In addition, Microsoft's and MSN's own pages were generally speech-friendly and easy to navigate.

MSN Messenger

MSN Messenger is a fun way to communicate with buddies. MSN Explorer installs MSN Messenger Service on your system and lets you manage a "buddy list" so that, among other things, you can be alerted when one of your buddies signs on. I found that this worked very well, even if I was using Internet Explorer 5.5 instead of MSN Explorer to browse web pages and had MSN Messenger open in the background, I was notified when a buddy signed on. When sending messages back and forth the text of the conversation was easily readable and appeared in a normal windows-style window, ensuring that it worked well with screen readers.

Getting Help

The MSN Explorer help system was absolutely loaded with keyboard commands. Besides the easy-to-find "accessibility" option prominently featured on the main list of choices, each subcategory, such as "using e-mail" contained lists of relevant hot keys and keyboard techniques.

Many other Microsoft products, such as Windows 98 and Office 2000, feature a well-developed, highly accessible help system. In the system, help topics are grouped in a way that makes the hierarchy of books, chapters, and subcategories obvious both visually and using a good screen reader. In MSN Explorer, however, Microsoft placed the help system in a separate browser-type window and simulated the visual look of the hierarchy of chapters and subchapters but not the functional structure. So, the relationship between a main heading and the items under it is lost on the speech user. It would have been more effective to have used the very effective help system already in use in other products.


If you have a generic Internet service provider and are getting along, you should probably stick with what you have. If you find yourself in a situation in which AOL is your only option for online service, that system has made noticeable improvement in the past year, especially in its e-mail system. If you have the option of using a standard ISP such as Earthlink or Concentric and think you would like the more guided interface of MSN Explorer, you'll find Microsoft has made a good start toward a speech-friendly interface to the Internet.

Product Information

MSN Explorer

Manufacturer: Microsoft Corporation; phone: 800-426-9400; Web site: www.microsoft.com.

America Online

phone: 800-827-6364; Web site: www.aol.com.

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