ONLINE CHURN HITS BIG PLAYERS ALLEN SELLS AOL SHARES; GENIE, DELPHI GO OUTSIDE FOR TOP POSTS

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A rush of new online services may be having a ripple effect on the more established gatekeepers of cyberspace.

Billionaire investor Paul Allen dumped 733,000 shares, or roughly half of his 20% stake in America Online, apparently frustrated by his inability to gain more control over the company's management.

And the fourth- and fifth-largest services, General Electric Co.'s Genie and News Corp.'s Delphi Internet Services, named new top executives to boost their visibility in the increasingly competitive market.

None are visibly hurting: No. 3 AOL last week reported that revenues for the fourth quarter of its fiscal year, ended June 30, jumped 204%, and that its subscriber count, now 903,000, should reach the 1 million mark by next month.

Still, the looming competition from the likes of Apple Computer, Ziff Communications, Microsoft Corp. and a plethora of Internet-based services raises the stakes for all involved.

"The success story of AOL, and the fact that it got off the ground with very little capital and rocketed to success ... sort of makes it attractive to competitors to try to do the same thing," said Andrew Frank, director of software development at Ogilvy & Mather Direct's Interactive Marketing Group, New York.

Analysts say Mr. Allen's stock sale doesn't indicate any weakness at AOL, and that a takeover attempt of the service is unlikely, although Sprint Corp. has accumulated a 5% stake as a "strategic partner."

"The new start-ups are making a lot of noise, but I don't see them adding subscribers," said Keith Benjamin, an analyst at Robertson Stephens & Co., San Francisco. "I am convinced these guys have enough of a lead and enough momentum to keep the lead in a field that can support multiple competitors."

For now, at least, the large subscriber base enjoyed by AOL and its two largest competitors, No. 1 Prodigy and H&R Block's No. 2 CompuServe, has its advantages.

"If you've got 900,000 users, you're going to get first pickings on content and software development," said Joshua Harris, president of Jupiter Communications, a New York consultancy.

That leaves smaller services like Genie and Delphi battling for their own piece of the on-line pie.

Genie last week named Mark Walsh to the new post of president, charging him with developing multimedia extensions and strategic alliances with new content providers like transactional retail and travel services.

Mr. Walsh most recently was president of Information Kinetics, an interactive information and database publishing company. Before that, he was VP-general manager for interactive services at CUC International, the giant direct marketing company.

Mr. Walsh, who joins Genie Sept. 5, assumes duties formerly held by General Manager John Barber, who moves to operations manager at the service, which has an estimated 400,000 subscribers.

Delphi, meanwhile, brought in former IBM Corp. executive Alan Baratz as CEO, succeeding Dan Bruns, a longtime Delphi executive elevated to chairman, a new post.

Since acquiring Delphi last fall, News Corp. has been steadily installing its own handpicked executives like Mr. Baratz, former director of strategic development at IBM.

"Alan Baratz brings a big-company expertise and knowledge to this little company, and that's something that gives us an extra two cylinders," said Jaan Torv, a former News Corp. executive who's now Delphi senior exec VP-programming and development.

Delphi, with about 100,000 subscribers, is gradually adding News Corp. content and preparing to roll out a new graphic interface next year.

As a result of these upgrades-and increased household penetration of PCs-observers predict more maneuvering for market share in the months ahead.

"When you get down to the questions of Delphi vs. AOL vs. Genie, I think there will probably be a lot of fluctuation, because people will want to try new things," O&M's Mr. Frank said. "These services have always had a lot of churn."

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