Dave, can I use America Online (AOL) as my Internet Service Provider, but actually use a different web browser — Firefox — rather than the browser that’s included with the AOL software suite? Also, how about email programs?
In the old days, AOL used to force you to use their own tools, but somewhere along the way, a few years ago, they changed their configuration and you can now use any Internet applications you want, from instant message clients to the iTunes store, Firefox to Thunderbird.
The key is to log in to your AOL account and stay logged in. Some configurations might require that you do something within the AOL framework every hour or so, to keep the connection alive, but my experimentation suggests that if you’re using the Internet at all through the AOL wire, that’s good enough for it to keep you online.
To browse the Web with Firefox, for example, connect to your AOL account as you normally do — and this works with their free 1000 hour accounts too, by the way — then leave that program running and launch Firefox. It’ll automatically use the AOL account as your dialup Internet access and you’re good to go.
The only wrinkle here is that it appears that AOL still sporadically blocks outbound mail connections from other mail programs (us tech types call this “SMTP” for the simple mail transfer protocol). I get around the problem by using an SSH Tunnel but if you’re persistent on your send attempts it eventually seems to work without any fuss.
Oh, you can’t use the AOL Address Book or other AOL features in these third party programs, so if you want to have email@example.com as your email address, you’re in a bit of a tricky situation. I believe that there are third-party email programs that can access your AOL mailbox, but I’m not sure. Perhaps someone else can comment on that?