Aol.Com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web
Author: Kara Swisher
Publisher: New York: Times Business, Random House, 1999
Review Published: August 1999
Do you hate Internet books that glorify online businessmen? Well, if so this book is not for you. Sometimes reading like a summary of AOL's many changing business plans and sometimes as a thriller outlining how the hero AOL vanquished its many problems (even the self-inflicted ones), Kara Swisher's book takes the reader inside AOL's changing structures to see how one of the more important Internet companies was created and survived. The book's strengths and weaknesses both flow from this insider perspective.
AOL is undoubtedly one of the companies that has made the Internet and cyberspace what it is today and what it will be. As such, it deserves and needs both a good critical history and an analysis of its place in cyberspace. Swisher does a good job of tracing the ever changing nature of AOL from a proprietary online service, to an online service plus ISP, to a 'new media' company, to a portal plus ISP and well, to who knows what else in the future. Swisher seems to have had excellent access to key AOL staff and particularly to its highly visible leaders such as Steve Case and Ted Leonsis and she uses her interview material well. If nothing else, Aol.Com is a mine of intriguing quotations. The mistakes, near-collapses and cunning plans that shape AOL are clearly outlined. It is a shame Swisher finished her book before AOL bought Netscape but that is hardly her fault.
A good example of Swisher's strength is the story of how Bill Gates was 'beaten' (actually not as unusual event as many believe) or, more accurately, how Microsoft's attempt to set up a competing online service to AOL failed. The book begins with a great insider story of Bill Gate's opening line in a meeting between Microsoft and AOL to discuss 'mutual interests' (which in the business world tends to be a euphemism for a discussion about who exactly is going to eat whom and with what sauce). Swisher claims Gates began by saying to Steve Case 'I can buy 20 percent of you or I can buy all of you. Or I can go into this business myself and bury you.' Swisher claims Case saw this not as bullying, as most of us might foolishly feel if the 'richest man in the world' offered to buy or bury us, but as Gates' nerdily laying out the logical possibilities with no respect for emotion. Mutual nerdom prevailed. From this dramatic start Swisher effectively charts Microsoft's attempt to bury AOL by starting up a competing proprietary network (Microsoft Network) and how Ted Leonsis, in particular, rallied AOL's troops to fight off Microsoft's attempt to control the online world. She perhaps doesn't lay enough emphasis on how Microsoft developed a strong track record in completely misunderstanding the online world and so was even further behind than AOL in grasping the implication of the Internet. After all, Microsoft Network was set up initially with little regard to connecting its users to the Internet, just at the time AOL was dimly realizing that they'd better become an ISP as well as a proprietary network or they would be overrun by the Internet.
However, from the story of Gates' assessment of his options to the famous meeting at AOL when Ted Leonsis asked all the staff to pledge themselves to a crusade against Microsoft by signing a picture of a dinosaur (it was around Jurassic Park time), Swisher tells the business story extremely well. We might wonder what the employees who had been urged to fight in the war against the Microsoft Godzilla thought when barely a year later AOL's holy war against Microsoft turned into a business partnership (in which AOL would aid Microsoft by making Microsoft's Internet Explorer as the default browser for AOL users), but Swisher keeps us moving with the higher management and their twists and turns. Numerous stories like this are spread throughout the book, allowing complex business deals and startling reversals of policy to be retold with the logic and humanity of senior managers made clear.
For all the above reasons Aol.Com might be thought to deserve a wide readership but it also has serious flaws. The insider perspective is only rarely tempered by critics or analysis of AOL's broader social or political context. When AOL makes various changes that significantly reduce the income of its content-producing partners, changes not discussed with those partners, Swisher does not explore these with interviews of any of the partners. Instead, she sympathetically reviews the reason for this lack of consultation through the eyes of AOL's senior managers. Similarly, AOL users are significant only by their absence. Despite Swisher repeating Steve Case's refrain that AOL is about three C's (communication, community, clarity) she doesn't interview or examine any members of AOL's community; there are no ordinary users in this book. This seems an astonishing missing link for two reasons.
First, AOL's many users and the particular attempts it makes to retain its users by offering them opportunities to create communities, particularly in chat rooms, is the chief reason why AOL is important to the Internet and cyberspace. If AOL were not so big and able to retain its customers, why would anyone pay it any attention? Yet only the managers' view of this process is present in this book. How does community translate into dollars? Or even more pointedly, does community translate into dollars? These are key questions that receive little analysis by Swisher. The even more pointed question, should community be translated into dollars? is, unfortunately, far beyond the horizons of this book.
Second, beyond the importance of community to AOL and its survival/success there is a broader question about the importance of community in cyberspace that is relevant to AOL. This is perhaps a less important failure for a book primarily about AOL than the previously outlined failure to examine the nature of community on AOL, but it is also a missed opportunity to contribute to one of the great debates about the nature of online life. For the many people interested in examining the nature of community in cyberspace, in particular for those interested in understanding their ownexperiences in online communities, this book offers very little.
The primary failure of Swisher's Aol.Com is that she appears to have 'gone native.' Having become immersed in a series of interviews with AOL staff, particularly senior, famous and sometimes charismatic managers, she has become one with their viewpoint. The ordinary chat user, the family that sees AOL as 'safe,' the content-provider who makes AOL much of what it is, all these people are absent. But Steve Case, Ted Leonsis (who modestly claims in the book to have been the man who prevented Microsoft dominating cyberspace), other AOL superstars and a passing parade of the great and good of cyber-business all have their opinions, agonies and brilliance glossed in respectful detail. There is, of course, nothing wrong with examining these business superstars and perhaps I'm being naive given this is a book in the Time Business series, but I can't help feeling that the people who actually use AOL and the people who actually design and maintain its online presence also contribute to AOL, and these voices are absent. If you want to glory in the presence of Steve Case and find out how he beat Bill Gates (that is, AOL was not crushed by Microsoft's online service MSN), how he crushed the netheads (a bizarre claim as AOL clearly had to join the netheads in becoming an ISP) and how he made millions (or how AOL's stock became worth millions, it's still a little unclear if AOL really does generate millions in profit), this book is for you. If you are sick to death of hearing about what masters of the universe Case, Gates et. al. are; if you can't believe it's not damn, fool luck that they became squillionaires by their cunning and hard work; and if you care about people in cyberspace other than these profit-seeking, testosterone-driven egomaniacs, then this book offers you little.
Tim Jordan teaches Sociology at the Open University and is the author of Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet (Routledge, 1999) and co-editor with Adam Lent of Storming the Millennium: The New Politics of Change (Lawrence and Wishart, 1999). <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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