AOL Browser Trips Up Wall Street Journal Web Users

By: Steve Outing

Since the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition went to a purely paid subscription model on September 21, other Web publishers have been watching and waiting to see how the Journal will fare without free visitors. Unfortunately, any results are likely to be skewed due to a problem that users of America Online are having in accessing the Journal site.

The problem first showed up on September 12, before the subscription gates went down, according to Susan Cayne, technical director for the Journal Interactive Edition. America Online users relying on the latest Windows version of the AOL browser cannot access the Journal site. When an AOL user types in a name and password to enter the site from the home page, the attempt is futile as the user is asked over and over to type in the log-on information in a never-ending loop; they’re never able to get past the log-on screen.

Cayne says the problem has been diagnosed as being in the AOL browser’s interaction with the Netscape Publishing System, on which the Journal Web site runs. The problem, apparently, is that the AOL browser is not “cookie-compliant,” yet it tells the Netscape server software — as the browser sends in a user request for a page on the Journal site — that it is, thus fouling up the scheme that allows only registered subscribers to view the site.

What’s a ‘cookie’?

Basically, a “cookie” is a piece of information that a Web site can send to a user’s browser to be stored away for future use — such as a user’s log-on name and password. Each cookie “belongs” to a specific Web site, and will be sent back to its originating Web site by the browser software each time a user requests a page from the site. Each cookie has an expiration date; some expire when the user ends a browser session (quits the browser application), while others are set to expire into the future to allow for future re-use of the information contained in subsequent Web browsing sessions on the site (so that a Web site visitor doesn’t have to type in her log-on data more than once).

Cayne says that as http requests (the messages sent from a client’s browser) hit the Journal’s Netscape Publishing System server, it is determined what browser the request is coming from. In the case of the AOL browser, it is identifying itself as “Mozilla,” Cayne says, which is the name Netscape’s Navigator browser — which is cookie compliant — uses. Thus, the Journal server serves up pages to the AOL browser with a protocol that the AOL browser doesn’t support. The browser doesn’t continue to do the expected thing since it has misrepresented itself, and the Web site’s user registration scheme fails.

At the New York Times Web site, which also uses a Netscape server system, a similar but less severe problem is being experienced, according to vice president of technology Steve Luciani. The Times site allows users to record a “permanent” cookie that stores a log-on name and password that can be used every time a user visits the Times site. If the user chooses this option, he doesn’t have to type in log-on data at the start of each session. At each page request, the cookie data stored by the user’s browser is passed to the Times Web site, the Times server knows that a registered user is requesting the page, and the page is served.

The problem that AOL visitors to the Times site experience is that their cookies don’t persist beyond a single session. They only have to type in their log-on information once and can visit many Times Web pages without re-entering the data during a single session. But the AOL browser problem effectively disables the Times site’s feature allowing a user to store a permanent password cookie.

Cayne says she’s been trying to work with AOL on the problem, but has been unable to reach the right people at AOL to address the issue. (For the last two days I have attempted to reach an AOL representative knowledgeable about this issue, but my calls were not returned.) Until AOL speaks up, the problem remains somewhat of a mystery. Why the Times experiences a slightly different version of the problem as the Journal is perplexing to both newspapers’ Web managers.

Luciani at the Times says that he’s considered preventing AOL users from going through the motions of saving their password to the site “permanently” if the issue is not resolved. But he also says that the problem will go away on its own soon when Microsoft Explorer becomes the default Web browser for AOL users and AOL’s own browser goes away.

(I apologize if this is getting too technical, but I should point out here that in the normal operation of the Netscape Publishing System, when the server receives an http request from a browser that is not cookie compliant, the server reverts to normal http access control, which means that a Web site visitor only has to enter a password once during a session. If the AOL browser identified itself correctly as non-cookie compliant, the access problems experienced by the Journal would not occur — this according to Chris Tucher at Netscape, who helped me understand this issue.)

Subscriber numbers delayed

Journal Interactive Edition editor Neil Budde says this problem points to a common road hazard on the Internet. “The issue that’s troubling is that the Internet is a standards-based area,” he says, “but there are all kinds of non-standard things happening out there” like the AOL browser problem. It’s virtually impossible to test everything, he says, which makes the job of Web publishers increasingly difficult as technology marches on.

Budde says he hopes to soon compile some figures on how the Journal Web site is doing now that it’s paid-subscription only. He’s been waiting for things to stabilize in order to get a reasonable assessment of subscriptions after the free visitors went away. With an unknown number of AOL users unable to access the Journal site, his numbers are likely to skew the true picture.

USWest joins the fray

You may have noticed the news this week of the latest entrant into the online city guide marketplace, Denver-based telco USWest. The city Web sites, which I have previously mentioned in this column using their working title, CityFocus, are being called “Dive In,” and will be rolled out in 10 cities by year’s end. The game plan is similar to some other companies’ offerings, with local content such as city council meeting news, community calendar listings, community resources, coupon offerings, and capsule reviews of 300 local Web sites. It also has lined up partnerships with outside content providers like MovieLink, the Weather Channel, Quote.com and Rent Net. USWest follows telco brethren Pacific Bell, which recently launched its AtHand city guide Web service.

I’ll take a chance and predict that USWest will have trouble making the Dive In concept work. AT&T just pulled the plug on a test of a similar venture, called the Home Town Network, after determining that it couldn’t make money in the city guide business. Typically, local media are loathe to lend their content to telco projects like this — and USWest is not a content company. And with smart, faster-moving competition in the local city guide business from the likes of Digital City Inc. and CitySearch, USWest has a steep uphill battle to wage.

College news Web site contest

The College Press Network is holding a competition for best college online publications on the Web. Announcement of the winners will be made November 23 during the Associated Collegiate Press Conference in Orlando, Florida. For information about the competition, visit the CPN Web site, or request an entry form from cpnet2@aol.com.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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