The Internet Killed AOL

by Jan 22, 2003, 12:00 AM
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I have had a desktop computer in my house since 1990, when I bought an IBM PS/1 in order to have the Prodigy service. I was introduced to Prodigy while making a sales call at the company’s headquarters in White Plains, New York. I was so impressed after the meeting I went downstairs, across the parking lot into the Sears Roebuck, and left with a PS/1 under my arm.

As it turned out, my interest in the Prodigy service waned quickly; but the computer became part of my life.

Many others bought a computer and joined the wired generation because of Prodigy, CompuServ or AOL. But, in a tale of extraordinary irony, each succumbed to a New Information Age that each helped bring about -- Prodigy is gone, CompuServ is gone and, now that Steve Case is gone I don’t think AOL is far behind him.

It is useful to remember that the online services I am talking about weren’t part of the Internet before, say, the mid-90s. You dialed-in directly to Prodigy and the others and stayed there, surfing their local content. Prodigy was one of the first to offer Internet access to its users, while AOL resisted. As the past caught up with the future, Prodigy, CompuServ, AOL all became Internet companies, but they didn’t start out that way, and were uncomfortable with it from the beginning.

All of this means that I am struck now by the coverage that has accompanied the departure of Steve Case from AOL. He has been eulogized recently as “an archetypal Internet visionary, famous for his grand notions of how the infant online media, would change the world” [New York Times, 1/15/03]. But Mr. Case, while obviously a very smart guy, wasn’t an Internet visionary. And, ultimately, that’s why AOL - and others - have and will continue to struggle.

Steve Case’s vision was largely incompatible with the Internet. He had a sense of a digital community, but it would be his community. The Internet is much more independent than that. The Internet runs on independence. It is fanatically independent. It is driven from the end user, backwards.

Nearly 15 years ago Steve Case and others helped introduce us to a new kind of information marketplace: information that was available on demand, that was customized, that was timely. We liked the idea. It drove my purchase of a home computer. I was attracted by the notion of a unique kind of media access, one that promised some independence and control at my fingertips. Independence was the operative word, however, and in the end, the online services weren’t independent or, really “at my fingertips.” They were and continue to be simply another editorial service brought to you by another media company. I got more satisfaction from my newspaper, which I remember Bob Pittman describing to a group of us at the Los Angeles Times as “the best random access vehicle in media.” (I loved that.)

Who would have thought two years ago that AOL would be teetering? But, really, it’s only logical. I want to say it’s something like “power to the people” because - well - what other explanation is there? The New Information Age - and the Internet - is about a transfer of control from the media oligarchies of the last century to the independent proprietors of the next. If you can understand that, then you can understand why most of the Internet companies that modeled their online businesses (and ambitions) on the smokestack-type media factories of old have been punished. They are trapped in a time warp, wishing it was 1887 and they were William Randolph Hearst. Not here. Not now. Mr. Hearst might have been a web publisher, but he’d be doing it from his spare bedroom.

My bet is that Steve Case will buy back AOL from Time Warner when they spin it off, and on that basis he may be a genius. He may make AOL great again, but it will be on different terms. It will have to be. The walls of AOL’s garden will have to come down.

So will other walls. As Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, wrote in the Wall Street Journal a year ago, “the Internet is less a creation dictated by economics than it is a miracle and a gift.” Hence, I’d propose, its popularity. Underneath all the desperate commercialism it is independent and, as it has demonstrated so far against the Goliaths of the Age, independence will prevail.

Power to the people.

- Jarvis Coffin is President and CEO of BURST! Media

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