Finding AOL e-mail
August 11, 2009 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Where does and where did AOL keep its e-mail messages? I have never been an AOL user, so I need to ask those who are or were.

AOL used to have its own proprietary software. Now, I suspect, all access is via the web.

Were messages always hosted by the company at its servers? (Was it the first online-only mail service?) Or did it have the user's computer download the messages to its hard drive, like the standard e-mail services do?

Has that changed since 5-10 years ago?
posted by yclipse to Technology (3 answers total)
In the older, Windows-app days, AOL used to store local copies of files in it's organize folder.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:10 PM on August 11, 2009

Oh and by files, I mean mail and contacts...attachments were not stored in there IIRC.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:11 PM on August 11, 2009

AOL still has its own proprietary software, but almost all the AOL content is web-accessible (they're quite the web content publisher today), including e-mail. It is not necessary to have the software to access most features, although AOL encourages it. There are even limited versions of the software available, such as the AIM client and the former AOL Communicator (sort of a mini-Netscape Mail, which let you listen to AOL radio and use AIM).

Anyway. AOL mail still works in the centralized way you remember. Your client accesses the AOL server and shows you the current messages stored there. These messages may be read, forwarded, etc. from within your client, which is (I believe) a proprietary version of IMAP. Additionally, AOL's mail servers delete any message over 30 days old. Thus you need to explicitly download versions of messages if you want to keep them.

There is a Saved Mail (or Saved on AOL) folder on the server, which will keep messages permanently. You need to move messages there manually. For local storage, AOL's client manages something called the Personal Filing Cabinet (PFC). You can set this to retain all messages sent by you using the AOL client, and you can also automatically save all messages there or just move them manually as you like. Confusingly, the PFC is called that throughout AOL except in the interface itself, where it is labeled "Saved on My PC".

Most people don't realize that the PFC can be subdivided into folders and subfolders as much as you like. Very few people, in my experience, are still using AOL by the time their e-mail usage gets this sophisticated, but my dad did. The PFC is somewhat portable but almost impossible to deal with outside of the AOL client (e.g. exporting to Outlook is something you can't expect). As JaredSeth recalls, the PFC is found under the organize folder. It's even possible to have more than one, but the loading/unloading process is too cumbersome to make it a realistic way to manage messages except in a sense of keeping your really old e-mail history around for the just-in-cases. Note: really large PFCs can cause AOL to crash, so compact them periodically.

As JaredSeth also notes, attachments must be downloaded while the message is still on AOL's servers, otherwise they are lost forever.

On the other hand, AOL long ago opened up their mail to standard IMAP clients such as Thunderbird. If you use that you can then filter mail directly to local folders that you control.
posted by dhartung at 10:07 PM on August 11, 2009

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