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AOL.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web
     

AOL.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web

5.0 1
by Kara Swisher
 

In 1996, Kara Swisher, then a reporter at The Washington Post, was granted unprecedented access to one of the hottest and most closely watched companies in the world, America Online, Inc. In aol.com, Swisher has written a book that captures the secrets of how AOL beat the competition and became the world's biggest online company. Swisher also reveals the

Overview


In 1996, Kara Swisher, then a reporter at The Washington Post, was granted unprecedented access to one of the hottest and most closely watched companies in the world, America Online, Inc. In aol.com, Swisher has written a book that captures the secrets of how AOL beat the competition and became the world's biggest online company. Swisher also reveals the company's behind-the-scenes dealings with Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, CompuServe, Prodigy, Netscape, and the Christian Right.

Throughout its existence, AOL has repeatedly been written off by the media and the high-tech world. Bill Gates threatened to buy it or bury it. Deep-pocketed competitors such as CompuServe and Prodigy thought little of their smaller rival. And AOL made matters worse by committing a series of public-relations and technical blunders that became front page news and enraged its subscribers.

But the company—a "cyber-cockroach"—refused to die. Now, with over eleven million subscribers, AOL is the undisputed leader in the online world, vitally positioned at the nexus of big business, high tech, advertising, and new media. In telling the story of AOL, Swisher also conveys the fascinating history of the online business, which has its origins in the dreams of an eccentric and little-known entrepreneur named Bill Von Meister, whose grand ideas and big spending spawned the fledgling company that would become AOL. But it fell to a young marketing executive named Steve Case to build AOL while fending off an onslaught of wealthier competitors and suitors. Ultimately, as Swisher vividly illustrates, AOL gained supremacy because Case possessed the best visionfor his company, establishing AOL as a vibrant virtual community rather than an online shopping center or business tool. Included in that community is an array of enthusiasts, activists, and deviants who at times clash in battles over freedom of expression and family values, a flash point best illustrated here by AOL's fight against the Communications Decency Act.

Re-creating all of the major moments in AOL's frenzied history, aol.com is a fascinating and important inside story about the birth of a new medium, the enterprising innovators who are leading it, and the way it is changing our culture.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
July 1998

America Online has become one of the preeminent brands on the Internet. Its mix of exclusive content, chat rooms, message boards, and nationwide dial-up hubs has turned it into one of the most popular online hangouts. Kara Swisher's AOL.Com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web looks at the often-rocky path AOL head Steve Case and his band of engineers and content providers traveled to find success as the world's premier proprietary online service.

Swisher's book offers readers a thorough history of the often-proclaimed-dead online service, from its humble origins as an Amiga software distributor to its great crash in the middle of 1996 to its current position as an online titan that has bought out competitors such as CompuServe and upstarts like Mirabilis. Although AOL has had more than its share of problems, from hackers to constant busy signals to attempted buyouts, Case's company has persevered and remained at the top of its field, in both name recognition and volume of users (membership reached 11 million at the beginning of 1998).

And it is Case, according to Swisher, who brought his company such success. With his marketing background, Case was able to focus on ways to find the all-important new users. Case's skills as a public relations marvel (particularly important considering the online service's reputation for having a salacious side) are also explored by Swisher; time and time again, these skills have saved the company and eventually brought it to the summit of theonline-servicemountain. AOL.Com is an in-depth look at one of this decade's major media successes.

Mark Baechtel
Competent reportage of such inherently dramatic stuff makes for good reading. And yet, and yet...one reads and wants more....aol.com is long on analysis of the company's corporate culture but short on nuts and bolts. Swisher would have helped the book greatly by leavening its boardroom anthropology with some discussion of how the system's network architecture, content offerings and user interface meshed and evolved....Swisher never pretends that aol.com is more than a history of events, and her book makes a valuable addition to the canon of literature emerging on the history of the online communications revolution.
Washington Post
Megan Harlan
...Swisher rather giddily celebrates...Case's ascendence over scornful 'digerati'...[but] she also reveals the secret to his success: a 'bland,' 'vanilla,' and universally accessible product.
Entertainment Weekly
Timothy Morgan
C.From...aol.com, it would be easy to conclude that the folks at America Online are wearing the white hats....she is surprisingly unreflective in analyzing the palce of AOL and its CEO, Steve Case, in the cultural ethos of the late 1990s....Swisher acknowledges that she is telling a story that is still very much in progress.
Books & Culture: A Christian Review
Richard Bernstein
[A] detailed, warts-and-all history of one of the greatest capitalist success stories of all time....Swisher's corporate history is well researched and comprehensive....[but] her manner of telling it is often annoyingly gimmicky, as if she were writing for people who don't actually like to read....Despite the clunky, jargon-strewn style of Ms. Swisher's telling of it, the AOL saga is a fascinating and instructive story.
The New York Times
David Pogue
An entertaining account of America Online's 10-year, almost accidental stumble to prominence as America's most popular Internet-access service.
New York Times Book Review
Megan Harlan
...Swisher rather giddily celebrates...Case's ascendence over scornful 'digerati'...[but] she also reveals the secret to his success: a 'bland,' 'vanilla,' and universally accessible product.
Entertainment Weekly
Timothy C. Morgan
From...aol.com, it would be easy to conclude that the folks at America Online are wearing the white hats....she is surprisingly unreflective in analyzing the palce of AOL and its CEO, Steve Case, in the cultural ethos of the late 1990s....Swisher acknowledges that she is telling a story that is still very much in progress. -- Books & Culture: A Christian Review
Kirkus Reviews
A thorough, thoughtful account of how America Online left its status as a lark to become the much-maligned but presently undisputed king of online services. Swisher, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was given unprecedented access to AOL head Steve Case for her book, and it is from Case and other inside sources that she's gotten much of her material. She records, for instance, a 1993 confrontation between Case and Microsoft head Bill Gates, wherein Gates tells Case, 'I can buy 20 percent of you or I can buy all of you. Or I can go into business myself and bury you.' Gates's cockiness backfires in this instance, as he never is able to either acquire any significant portion of AOL or get his own Microsoft Network to attract much of AOL's audience. Case's battle with Gates is summed up well in Case's own argument that Microsoft's Windows platform had become to PC users what the dial tone is to the telephone — a minimum basic requirement for usage. For Gates to exert undue control over this computer 'dial tone,' Case was able to argue successfully, would be an unfair advantage. Still, Case has to battle over the course of Swisher's chronicle with his own users over the service's charges (he eventually settles on a flat rate of per month, but not without taking serious losses along the way); and with the government and its Communications Decency Act, which AOL's lawyers were instrumental in fighting in federal court. He also has to contend with the issue of sex on the Internet, knowing well that much of AOL's revenue is based on cybersex and other forms of adult entertainment. Swisher never sensationalizes these hot topics. Her book is a solid study of the birth, growth,and struggles of this computer giant.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780812931914
Publisher:
Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/01/1999
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
5.24(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

the canary in the coal mine

        The truth is: nobody knows.
        And, because most often they do not know that they do not know, no one will ever tell you that truth.
        Some people don't know because they are too hopeful and sometimes because they are very greedy. Some are profoundly stupid or are a little too smart.
        But in the spanking new world of the Internet, nobody knows because everyone and everything has just been born.
        Which is why Steve Case found himself on May 8, 1997 cruising on the calm waters of Lake Washington in Seattle on a boat carrying him and more than 100 other chief executives toward the 20,000-square-foot, $40 million home of Bill Gates.
        Case was definitely not supposed to be there--if you had
paid heed over the years to a variety of learned Wall Street pundits, savvy journalists, pontificating technology consultants, and waspish naysayers in Silicon Valley. And the computer online service, America Online Inc., which he had built into the world's largest, was just one tiny step away from falling right over the precipice.
        The dirge had been endless: AOL was nothing. AOL was history. AOL was dead.
        Yet there Case stood--perhaps the liveliest corporate corpse one might ever meet--chatting with American Airlines head Robert Crandall, kibitzing with a cadre ofMicrosoft's top executives, and joking with Vice President Al Gore.
        In the near distance, in Bellevue, Case could just make out the outlines of Gates's glass-and-wood palace, still being built on the lakeshore, where an elaborate dinner awaited them. Getting to see the famed technological Xanadu that Gates was constructing for himself was the highlight of a flashy, two-day CEO "technology summit" Microsoft had organized. There had been speeches all day. Now a dinner of spring salmon, fiddlehead fern bisque, and tortes with Rainier huckleberries awaited them.
        As the boat wended its way from its launching point on Lake Union, surrounded by a flotilla of security boats to protect this small ship carrying very powerful people, to the place Case jokingly was calling "Bill's San Simeon" (after William Randolph Hearst's egotistical monument to himself), the man from AOL thought it was all just a little too bizarre.
        He was happy to have been invited, of course, but felt decidedly out of place. He had quipped to Microsoft finance chief Greg Maffei and other executives from the company that he felt like a spy deep in enemy territory. He ribbed them, asking playfully if he should be taking notes on any stray Microsoft secrets he could glean, and sending them off in a bottle over the side of the ship. But inside his head, he wondered seriously: Should he even be here at all, still standing? Had it only been four years ago that Case had been told by Gates that it was probably the end for AOL?
        Gates--whose leadership of Microsoft and ensuing vast wealth had made him into an American business icon on the level of John D. Rockefeller--had been spectacularly wrong.
        After the talks between them in 1993 had led nowhere, Gates had created his own online service as he had promised. But, in two years of trying and after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, Gates's Microsoft Network had not bested AOL. With AOL now four times as large, it had not even come close.
        No one had-yet.
        This much was true: in the last decade of the twentieth century, an entirely new medium--online communications via the personal computer--had been born. It was being hailed as the next great technological innovation, in the same league as the telephone, the radio, and television.
        Few times in American business history has an entire industry been created from almost nothing and captured the attention and imagination of millions of consumers, setting off a titanic clash for money, power, and dominance among some of America's greatest businesses. But such has been the case with the Internet and the online services industry since its mainstream emergence at the start of the 1990s. And of the many companies vying to create empires in cyberspace, there was now none better known than AOL.
        In much the same way that Coca-Cola had become the name most people associated with sugared soda, the brand of this emerging new medium had turned out to be AOL. Since its founding only ten years before, the company had grown from a dinky computer games service aimed at teenage boys into a huge business with more than $1 billion in revenue. It had become, in the process, the way most Americans reached the Internet. With nearly ten million subscribers worldwide, its "circulation" was much larger than that of any of the major newspapers in the United States.
        Yet it was also a company in constant danger. Innumerable challenges had given AOL a heart-rending roller coaster ride all along the way, and many observers had long predicted AOL's imminent demise. In 1993, they claimed that AOL was too small to compete with CompuServe and Prodigy (online services backed by big bucks from major U.S. corporations). AOL was too glitchy and simplistic to catch on with consumers, they opined in 1994. AOL was vulnerable to a withering frontal attack from Microsoft, they declared in 1995. AOL was going to really get knocked flat by the growing popularity of the Internet's World Wide Web, they announced in 1996. And finally, in 1997, they could say with absolute assurance, AOL was going to be its own executioner, shooting itself dead with a dizzying series of corporate missteps.
        And there were so many other AOL killers: the telephone companies, with their advantage in all things wired; the media conglomerates, with their abundant content; the scrappier Internet service providers, with their low prices.
        Beginning in the spring of 1996, the punches came hard: a precipitous stock drop that had cut AOL's market value by two-thirds; the increase of an online trend called "churn" that signaled dangerously restless customers; the embarrassing departure, after only four months, of a top executive brought in to discipline AOL's free-wheeling culture; another drastic restructuring of the corporate body and business plan; a restating of financial results that wiped out all the profits AOL had ever claimed it made; a shift in pricing that caused subscriptions to surge, but resulted in seriously blocked access for users; and one lawsuit after another over pricing, access, and stock value.
        Case, who had come to personify the company, had been called sleazy, a soap salesman, a liar, a fool.
        But he was still there. Case, in fact, had turned out to be the Rasputin of the Internet, with no one able to deliver the long-expected deathblow. All the nicknames AOL had acquired over the years had the exact same theme: the cockroach of cyberspace, the digital Dracula, the Lazarus of the online world.
        "Someday, the history of cyberspace will be written as a chronicle of the predictions of AOL's demise," Wired Magazine had written once. "From claims that America Online would fail because it wasn't 'open' to charges that it was inherently unreliable, the service has been a canary in the coal mine of cyberspace."
        By the spring of 1997, AOL's stock was up again to double its price during the summer and fall doldrums. Member numbers were moving slowly toward the golden 10 million mark, and the company had reported a small profit--a development that had taken off some of the pressure from Wall Street.
        But, as always, new rumblings were beginning to surface. With a new flat-rate pricing offering, AOL would not be able to attract advertisers who would yield the sustained profits needed to pay for its burgeoning costs. AOL would not be able to grow as fast as it needed to, because new consumers were becoming harder to find. AOL's proprietary design language would hinder its ability to attract much needed popular content that was flocking to the Web. And even this: AOL's new service head, MTV founder Bob Pittman, whom Case had recruited, was going to stage a corporate coup and displace Case at the top.
        AOL was nothing. AOL was history. AOL was dead.
        At the CEO conference that day, Bill Gates had talked of the importance of ensuring the excellence of a corporation's "digital nervous system."
        "The meetings, the paperwork, the way information workers are organized, the way information is stored--it's my thesis that, with the incredible advances in technology, it's now possible to have a dramatically more responsive nervous system," Gates had opined.
        If that was true, if you listened to all the noise, AOL's nervous system was suffering from an acute case of hypertension. But you couldn't tell that from Steve Case, a man whom his employees had taken to calling "The Wall" because of his ability to exude an otherworldly calm and have virtually no reaction to a wide variety of pressures. He was, in fact, a deeply shy man, not given to small talk and schmoozing--unusual traits, given that he was squarely at the forefront of the newest communications revolution. But his nonchalant style had given Case a reputation of aloofness and of haughty arrogance in the online world.
        But in Case's own head, another mantra had been playing for more than a decade, masking out all the cacophony of complaints.
        Over and over again; it said: AOL would be everywhere.
        Someday, somehow, Case dreamed, his service would be in America's dens, living rooms, kitchens, offices, and malls. And the elitists who ran most Internet companies--the doubters of this singular vision, the ones who told him he was going down so many times--they always had been wrong and they would be wrong once again.
        How did Case know all this?
        He didn't.
        Nobody did.
        But as he floated along on that sunny Pacific Northwest evening, the imperturbable Steve Case knew one thing for certain.

        The ride had just begun.

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AOL.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
AOL.com is one of the better books I've read the not only tells about the birth of AOL but the birth of the whole Internet revolution. The author, Kara Swisher is a superb writer that uses great writing techniques to describe and explain the setting, importance and mood of whatever she's writing about. If your interested in the history of the Internet or AOL or even both this book is a definite must.