By Jeff Schult
Ahhhhhhh ... sh*t.
Of all the comments I've heard about AOL buying Netscape, my favorite is the one comparing it to the marriage of "the town whore and the village idiot," quoted in AOLWatch by David Cassel. However much I'm amused by the characterizations, I'm alarmed by the fact that there were compelling reasons for both sides to do this deal, and I don't like what the future looks like through these glasses.
A friend ICQ'd me (I'm reminded that AOL bought THAT, too) to the effect that "If AOL buys Netscape, does that mean they're the Good Guys?" He meant "good guys" in the sense that the purchase would seemingly throw AOL into the Grand Alliance against Microsoft, the Evil Empire of Redmond. Strategically, it's kind of cool -- a marshalling of forces on the playground while school bully Bill Gates is off in the principal's office arguing with the Department of Justice. But this isn't a friendly game. This is getting uglier. I told my friend that, as far as I can tell, all the Good Guys get killed in this movie.
Let me preface what I am about to say about AOL here with an entirely necessary disclaimer -- I have been consistently proven wrong about AOL and Steve Case's Big Picture for years. I thought the Internet would wipe out AOL. I thought that online consumers wanted the most reliable and speediest access to the Internet that twenty bucks a month could buy, the kind of access you usually have only been able to get from a good local Internet provider. Some 14 million people, instead, have chosen mediocrity, and more do so every day. Analysts are now saying AOL -- even with "churn," even with millions of unsatisfied EX-customers -- is growing faster than the next 25 Internet providers combined.
So I've been wrong, wrong, wrong. Wall Street has been right, right, right. What do I know? I don't like Yahoo, either. I'm opposed to a culture of mass markets. I thought that there would be a healthy tension, a balance, between big and small on the Internet. I now feel as though I, and people like me, are being backed into a corner by 800-pound gorillas wearing Steve Case and Bill Gates fright masks.
I don't like the trend anymore. And I hope I'm wrong about it, even as I wait to see what the takeover of the large company I work for might mean for me personally. Perhaps my vision is clouded by the fact that this is my third takeover in 14 months.
I ain't giving up. But I'm starting to feel quaint instead of trendy.
Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet can be reached at jeffbot at this domain.