Remember when board members at AOL Time Warner were, in hindsight, so horrified by their boneheaded merger that they actually voted to drop AOL from their corporate name, even though AOL technically bought Time Warner?
Now we keep hearing about how "Suddenly, AOL Is Hot Again" (a headline from Fortune-coincidentally AOL's corporate sibling) and keep reading about "AOL's Comeback" (from Money, another coincidental AOL corporate sibling).
It's all crap-the news about AOL's supposed resurgence, and AOL itself, for that matter. We're supposed to be excited that Time Warner posted a hefty increase in profits-although the biggest gains in adjusted operating profit came from networks and cable (21%) and even the old-school print division (9.1%), not AOL (just 6.9%).
Before imagining AOL's future, consider its track record. It's been around since before the beginning of (Internet) time. It's had the first-mover's advantage over and over and over again-in the realms of Internet access, content creation, digital music, e-commerce, instant messaging, etc.-and every single damn time it's ceded its leadership position to upstarts. (And last week AOL's proprietary technologies and closed standards sure didn't protect it from a strain of the Sdbot virus, which spread around the world through AOL Instant Messenger.)
We're also supposed to be excited that AOL is now being courted by big-name suitors (Microsoft, Google, Comcast, Yahoo, etc.) for some sort of "partnership." But all I can see is vultures circling as they sniff such sweet stench of crisis. I mean, do the math: AOL's ISP (Internet service provider) customers have been walking away at a rate of some 2 million a year-for a total loss of almost a quarter of its subscribers since the merger with Time Warner.
We're also supposed to be delighted that AOL has yet another new strategy: to give away all its formerly proprietary content, with hopes of making a killing on advertising, Google-style. Yippee! Free content on the Web! What a daring idea circa 2005!
Two years ago, when AOL announced its previous idiotic Hail-Mary-pass strategy-making the content from Time Inc. brands (like, well, Fortune and Money) available online only to AOL subscribers-I wrote a column about how low-brow and learning-disabled AOL's own content was, and how embarrassing it was to see Time Inc.'s venerable content juxtaposed with such dreck. And, I noted, "the editorial standards of AOL are far below those of just about any mass-market magazine." Fast-forward two years: The newly relaunched AOL.com is packed with terse, bland, witless headlines trumpeting news stories and lame "lifestyle" features you can get countless other places online. At AOL, the more things change, the more they stay maddeningly the same.
Of course, there is one thing different about AOL now vs. two years ago: It's a much more desperate, depressing place to work. What I keep hearing from AOL insiders is that morale has never been lower. While corporate execs keep on announcing "exciting" new content-like "The Biz," a yawn-inducing AOL Music reality show-the people who are supposed to be dreaming up and executing on all that great new AOL.com content not only still have stock options that are mostly worthless (the company's market cap is a mere fraction of what it was in 2000), but they're worrying about making their mortgages, because they might not have jobs next week. As competitors like Google go on hiring sprees, the carpets are soaked with blood in AOL's cubicle-hell Dilbertland, because AOL chief Jonathan Miller keeps slashing costs by making deep, painful cuts in payroll. The worry now is that the 700 layoffs announced a few weeks ago might just be a preview of a Xmas Massacre II (last December, 750 people got canned).
Lately, Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons has been fond of saying stuff like, "The real driver of enhanced valuation is going to be AOL in the near term and the long term." And when AOL founder Steve Case quit the AOL board last week (supposedly to avoid a conflict with one of his new ventures), he said, "I strongly believe that AOL-once the leading Internet company in the world-can return to its past greatness."
Sure, fellas. Keep saying stuff like that and maybe someone (Fortune? Money? anyone?) will believe it.