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There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital Future

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There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital Future

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Someone gave me a shrewd piece of advice when I became Editorial
Director of America Online in 1997. "If you don't have conflicts of
interest," she said, "you're not doing it right."

I'm gone from AOL now, and most of my conflicts of interest have
evaporated. (Disclosure: I've known Kara Swisher for six years. She
used to bug me for information; I never had any.) And I'm "over"
AOL; the fascination of its internal drama faded as the company's
prospects declined. As it is for many of you, AOL is mostly an
e-mail address for me; how warring millionaires fought over the
arrangement of the deck chairs on this particular Titanic is of
very little interest. So when a book about the AOL/Time Warner
merger appears (and there will be four of them before the
publishers have exhausted everyone's patience), I'm tempted to look
at the index, turn to any pages that involve my pals or me, then
move on to books with characters a bit more engaging than white
male executives.

But THERE MUST BE A PONY IN HERE SOMEWHERE, Kara Swisher's account
of "the AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital
Future," was too good to put down so quickly. For one thing,
Swisher is a believer in the romantic promise of the Internet. She
understands, as most observers don't, that the Web is about much
more than ripping off Sony music or downloading porn; she gets that
the Web connects us, soul to soul, and, as such, represents a
better chance to form lasting bonds, affect politics and share
what's true than we find in the so-called "real" world. And because
AOL was the way most of us got our first glimpse into that
powerful, spiritual possibility, what happens to AOL matters.

Swisher's is also the most important book to come out about AOL
thus far because she knows the people as people. As a Wall Street
Journal reporter/columnist and, a few years back, author of the
definitive book on pre-merger AOL, she was in good position to
compare the "before" and "after" pictures. In this case, personal
knowledge matters a great deal --- rarely has a company recycled
its key executives like AOL. It's like a merry-go-round, but with
the characters $100 million richer each time they zoom
around.

And what characters! Just look at the players:

AOL CEO Steve Case: Years ahead of the mob, he saw that people
wanted to be together online. The staggering success of his
poster-simple online service made Case a "visionary" and gave him
what Swisher calls a "King of France" walk. Arrogant? Not Steve! He
still looked boyish, still wore work shirts and khakis, still spoke
of AOL in terms of its mission --- he just forgot to "drill down,"
as they say at AOL, through the business success to the customer
experience that used to be his obsession..

Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin: He was the poet laureate of cable TV,
but had known nothing but failure on the Internet. His stock price
languished, his vision was clouded --- thius Juliet pining for a
Romeo couldn't wait to say "yes" to an Internet suitor. As a
result, Swisher notes, "a company without an asset bought a company
without a clue."

Bob Pittman: When he became President of AOL in 1996, he saved the
cash-poor company, insitututed financial discipline and set it on
the road to riches. After the merger --- which he opposed --- he
became the AOLTW executive charged with selling it to Wall Street.
That was an impossible task; the stock price was a falling knife.
Taking a cue from the Red Chinese, who send political opponents to
the fields to be "re-educated," AOLTW dispatched Pittman back to
AOL to fix it. When he failed to produce a miracle in three months,
the Time Warner veterans sliced him up in the press with some
well-chosen (but always anonymous) quotes. Pittman got the message
and quit.

AOL's Myer Berlow and David Colburn: One sold advertising, the
other did deals. They're funny. Quotable. Larger than life --- and
a lot cruder than their counterparts at Time Warner. Instead of
softening their edges after the merger, they broke out the whoopee
cushions and the sarcasm in the name of producing more of the
spectacular profit they'd made for AOL. There was a lot of put-on
in their self-presentation. If you knew them, you might find them
amusing; the Time Warner people saw only obnoxiousness. And so,
predictably, AOL's Rosenkranz and Guildenstern were run out of
Dodge with great glee.

AOLTW CEO Richard Parsons: As Swisher describes him, you have to
wonder how this guy lucked into the big job. Never misses a party,
never lacks for a bland quote; someone describes him in these pages
as "a non-alcoholic beverage with greatness foisted upon him."
Biggest decision so far: "agreeing" with America Online to remove
AOL from the corporate name.

The Time Inc. Establishment: They have no names. Know them by their
forked tongues, their concealed weapons, their unremitting
bitterness over the falling stock price and the wealth of their AOL
colleagues --- and their enviable record at turning corporate
defeat into personal triumph. They had carved up their Warner
acquirers a decade ago, and they had no doubt they could do the
same to bumpkins from suburban Dull-ass Virginia. Most amusing
victory: AOL "agrees" to pay $40-to-60 million to be the exclusive
online home for once-free Time Inc. content.

This is not just a fast-paced, well-told story, it's one that
invites readers to look for a moral. Some will think it's hubris,
others the blinding power of riches. I see the book as a study in
conflicts of interest --- well before the merger, I would argue,
AOL stopped focusing on its customers and started living for Wall
Street. The execs didn't care enough to notice that AOL's
technology was rusting, that its programming was 24/7 Britney, that
members had to fight their way through a sea of pop-up ads to get
to their mail.

Now millions of AOL subscribers have defected and the stock is
mired at 15. Unless the current AOL management produces the
necessary miracle, Time Warner may sell AOL for whatever it can
get. Or AOL may be milked as a cash cow until it just…withers
away. Hard to believe? Well, Timbuktu was once the trading capital
of the world; now it's a sorry collection of mud huts.

Kara Swisher is a loving critic. She'd like AOL to have a happier
destiny, so, in her final chapter, she suggests "13 easy steps" to
fix AOL. Many of them are ideas that my pals and I suggested.
Often. Nobody listened --- a Taliban of white male vice presidents
much preferred PowerPoint presentations that forecast glorious
revenues to modest proposals for making AOL more customer-friendly.
Even now, in meetings, AOL programming VPs still speak of
"habituating the user." As if!

No, you don't have to be a disgruntled shareholder or Internet geek
to care about THERE MUST BE A PONY IN HERE SOMEWHERE --- this
cautionary tale is a must-read for anyone in danger of forgetting
that success comes from pleasing customers, one customer at a
time.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 23, 2011

There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital Future
by Kara Swisher

  • Publication Date: October 14, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Business
  • ISBN-10: 1400049636
  • ISBN-13: 9781400049639