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Never underestimate Steve Case

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  • dave@userland.com
    DaveNet essay, Never underestimate Steve Case , released on 1/31/2003; 11:34:50 AM Pacific.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 31, 2003
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      DaveNet essay, "Never underestimate Steve Case", released on 1/31/2003; 11:34:50 AM Pacific.
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      ***The story up till now

      AOL bought Time Warner a little over three years ago.

      Earlier this week, the new company -- AOL Time Warner, announced a record-breaking $100 billion write-down [1], the biggest in history. A few weeks ago AOL chairman Steve Case announced that he would step down in May, to be replaced by CEO Richard Parsons.

      Of course any idiot would have seen it coming. But in the exuberance of the Dotcom Bubble, none of us did. We were looking the other way.

      ***Doc's rant

      This morning I woke to an excellent rant from my good friend Doc Searls [2], pointed to by another good friend Lance Knobel [3].

      "The real kicker here," said Doc, "the eleven-zero irony is that this merged company was counting on AOL, of all things, to provide understanding of the very platform on which all this inter-divisional 'synergy' was going to take place. They actually thought AOL understood the Net."

      I recommend reading all of Doc's words, he's a brilliant writer.

      ***Did AOL understand the Internet?

      So back to Doc's question -- Did AOL understand the Internet? This really got me thinking. I posted four messages in rapid succession in the discussion group [4] on Davos Newbies. Summarized here.

      Back in 1995, when I just started writing for Wired while I wasn't actively writing software, AOL tried to hire me, and I almost went. I made several trips to Virginia, one was notable. It was an onsite meeting for AOL's CTOs, which even at that early date was an impressive gathering. They had just bought a backbone company, one of the big ones, and had bought a company that made a Web browser, and a few others, and then there were the core people who managed the AOL servers and their incredible network of dialups.

      The reason I mention all this is that I had the opposite impression. I learned a lot from all those people. In many ways each of them understood the Internet very well. Steve Case and the people he hired, in turn, hired well. That AOL works at all is testimony to that. What they do is hard. Really hard.

      Now, that said, I agree fully with Doc.

      AOL was the finger in the dyke of the Internet.

      I have a story about this too.

      At a party last week I met the former CEO of The Well [5], Maria Alioto. We talked about her experience. A total parallel to AOL. Good start. The Well probably was necessary for the Web to get going. The core of the West Coast Web. The meeting place for the future staff of Wired and EFF. All good things. But in the mid-90s when she came on, it had no future. As AOL had no future when Time-Warner was snookered into taking their stock.

      Moral of the story: Never underestimate Steve Case.

      Second moral: He's like Columbo, he makes it easy for you to underestimate him.

      ***Was there synergy in the merger?

      Did 1 plus 1 equal 3?

      Sadly, it didn't even equal 1.

      Dave Winer

      PS: CTO means Chief Technical Officer. Companies (or divisions of companies) often have marketing or finance people running the show. The CTO is responsible for the technology of the company. In the technology industry, needless to say, this is a very important role.

      PPS: CEO means Chief Executive Officer. This is the top person in a company. Even the chairman of the board of directors works for the CEO. From the outside it looks like AOL Time Warner's CEO fired its chairman and vice-chairman.

      PPPS: Columbo was a television character of the 1960s played by Peter Falk. He was an unkempt detective with a dirty raincoat, broken down car, he smoked a cigar, and always said "Uhhh one more thing sir." All the stars of the 60s played opposite Falk and they all underestimated Columbo. That was the constant theme. At the end, when the trap closed and they were caught, they all understood how smart Columbo really was. I think of Steve Case the same way. Clever, clever, clever.

      [1] http://media.guardian.co.uk/newmedia/story/0,7496,886473,00.html
      [2] http://doc.weblogs.com/2003/01/31#theNewRecordLossBusiness
      [3] http://www.davosnewbies.com/2003/01/31#onTheMoney
      [4] http://www.davosnewbies.com/discuss/msgReader$1109
      [5] http://www.well.com/

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      (c) Copyright 1994-2003, Dave Winer. http://davenet.userland.com/.
      Founder, UserLand Software, Inc; Berkman Fellow, Harvard Law School.
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