Time Warner confirmed yesterday that it will spin off AOL as a stand-alone public company at the end of the year. So endeth one of the more notable chapters in the history of the Internet, so far.
What can be said about this AOL/Time Warner experiment? Well, it didn't work. Could it have worked? Perhaps, but it was sabotaged by arrogance and mistrust on both sides from the beginning. Ambitious combinations such as AOL and Time Warner don't always fail because the strategic concepts are ill-conceived; they fail because of jealous rivalries and pedestrian concerns at the grassroots -- essentially, turf wars. In that regard, I am very interested to see the scything motion that Tim Armstrong has been using since assuming control of AOL. It may imply that he recognizes the first order of business is to cut-out the entrenched positions that have been holding-up the successful integration of AOL acquisitions and, hence, its business. It could also mean that he's layering in Google's entrenched positions, which will make for a very complex business environment at AOL, indeed.
But, could AOL and Time Warner have ever worked as a combo if human entanglements had not confounded it? Recall that at the time the merger took place AOL was still largely a gated content community. In that respect, AOL looked more like Time Warner than it does today. All its life, in fact, AOL -- along with most other early Internet players -- had probably dreamed of growing-up to be just like Time Warner, though digital. AOL saw in Time Warner all of its ambitions as a child. Time Warner, in return, saw in AOL its legacy and someone to care for it in old age. As media faithful, AOL and Time Warner shared a similar creed when they merged in 2000 and 2001.
If faith in the established media order of the time were to have been rewarded then, yes, perhaps AOL Time Warner might have succeeded in overcoming the usual obstacles of smashing businesses together and, today, represent the standard that currently belongs to Google. But faith in old media models -- gated communities -- has not been rewarded, at least to the extent that those models should prevail over others.
AOL, ironically, had nothing to teach Time Warner at the time they merged. It wanted too much to be Time Warner (and no one inside that organization was going to let it). It's different, today, and AOL probably has very much it could teach Time Warner; but the listening stopped long ago.
It is a good thing for both sides that this experiment has, thus, come to an end, and it may be a good thing for the media world generally to have AOL back grazing on the digital side of the fence, a somewhat older and wiser, senior member of the herd. The grass is green enough on our side of the fence and, ultimately, as the song goes, there is no place like the green, green grass of home.