"It just felt to me that change was coming," he said. "I didn't know how long it would take to develop, but I just had this fundamental belief that someday consumers would embrace interactive services and someday it would be a mainstream medium. And at the time, people thought we were crazy."
Some feel the same way this time around, too, about Mr. Case's new venture, Revolution Health, a network of websites and offline partnerships aimed at enabling and encouraging consumers to take control of their health care. Naysayers posit that this revolution is impossible because health-care systems and processes are too entrenched, government involvement and regulations are too complicated, and consumers don't really want to be engaged in their health care.
But Mr. Case is prepared to bet against them again. "Health care," he said, "which is one-sixth of this country's economy as a $2 trillion industry, is ripe for disruption."
Turning to the web
There's evidence that it's already happening. More than 80% of adults have searched for health-care information and advice online, and almost 60% cited the web as the single most important source of information during a loved one's health crisis, according to Pew internet research.
Thousands of health sites have sprung up in the past decade jockeying to be those information providers. Well-established sites such as WebMD and MSN Health compete with hundreds of less-credentialed health-advice sites, resulting in a disparate and uneven online-health-information scene.
"Consumers are now much more comfortable online with health care," said Forrester Research analyst Julie Snyder. "Part of what's being added now is social computing in health care, and Revolution Health is a good example of that."
Timing is also on Mr. Case's side in this election year. Health care is a key tenet of current public policy debates, with many traditional organizations and newly formed ones calling for the use of the internet to help create a more efficient, more-effective, higher-quality and lower-cost health-care system. Add it all up, and the 49-year-old Mr. Case sees a major opportunity.
"There are no power brands in health," he said. "Why is that? Because there's never been a consumer-centric orientation in health. Companies just focus on selling to employers or selling to the government but not really serving consumers," he said. "So part of this is building the marketing platform, the Revolution Health network, which is a short-term opportunity that enables us to build an audience and monetize that audience through advertising and sponsorship."
No time for golf
But why do anything at all? A lead architect of AOL's merger with Time Warner in 2000, Mr. Case earned millions as CEO of the company and is No. 962 on the 2008 Forbes list of wealthiest people, with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion -- and reportedly has poured $500 million of that into Revolution.
After countless media and investor lashings and several books written about the failings of the merger, you might expect Mr. Case would prefer golf to the harsh glare of the internet spotlight.
"Play golf?" he said with a laugh. "I could have. But I feel passionate about this. I think that health care has to change. My personal experience has animated that passion."
The personal experience to which he refers is, in part, the diagnosis of his brother, Dan Case, with an aggressive brain tumor in 2001. Steve Case related the experience of first finding out about the cancer: "We didn't know what to do. We went online; there was a little information, and it was kind of confusing. We talked to people and asked, 'What causes brain tumors?' Nobody knows. 'How do you treat brain tumors?' Nobody knows. 'What's the prognosis?' Not good. The particular tumor he had was a kind of death sentence. He paused. "Well, that's not acceptable."
His brother died in June 2002, but Mr. Case continued with the brain-cancer-research foundation they founded as well as a determination to change the system.
Less poignant but still illuminating, is his own experience as the father of five children, including one instance in particular, of waiting for four hours at a Washington emergency room on a Sunday to have his then-5-year-old daughter checked for an ear infection.
"Just sitting there, I was thinking that it's kind of crazy that on a Sunday morning, if you want a cup of coffee, there are like 12,000 Starbucks. But if you have a sick kid and you're worried that it's an ear infection, there's no place to go other than the emergency room. [That] led to the funding of this retail-clinic business we're developing with Wal-Mart," he said.
That joint venture, RediClinic, has more than a dozen units already up and running, with 200 more planned. Revolution Health Group also includes the main consumer website revolutionhealth.com launched last May. It was followed by purchases of community site CarePages and health-information site HealthTalk, plus an investment in the healthful-lifestyle group of SparkPages and an affiliate deal with online retailer Drugstore.com.
In January, that collection of sites helped Revolution Health push past WebMD, logging a total of 256 million page views to top the list of health networks, according to Revolution's assessment of ComScore data.
Revolution Health gets the bulk of Mr. Case's time and energy, but it is just one part of Revolution LLC. Other ventures include Revolution Money, a PIN-based credit-card and payment platform; Revolution Places, offering luxury resort experiences; and Revolution Living, with controlling interests in Miraval spa and Flexcar car-sharing service. (Lee Iacocca is on that board.)
Mr. Case passes over questions about AOL and Time Warner and the frenetic internet scene are now simply passed over with: "I left five years ago; maybe you know more than I," or a slight smile and shrug. "I have no take on that."
Yet while he may be older and wiser, he is still an idea generator and advocate of disruption.
At AOL, "I was passionate about the idea of building a medium and empowering consumers and changing the world, in that sense," he said. "But I also liked the fact that in the process we were building a very significant, valuable company, so you could have your cake and eat it too. I feel the same kind of way in health care."
Déjà vu all over again.