A Too Gentle Look at America's Largest Online Service


By Kara Swisher

Times Business

320 pp., $25

In screenwriter William Goldman's spellbinding book, "Adventures in the Screen Trade," there are two rules that every aspiring screenwriter needs to know about Hollywood: (1) Nobody knows anything, and (2) structure is everything.

After reading Kara Swisher's account of how America Online came to dominate the world of online services and become the most popular way for Americans to access the Internet, it's hard not to paraphrase Goldman's two rules a bit for cyberspace: (1) Nobody still knows anything, and (2) membership numbers are everything.

The underlying message of "aol.com" is that it's a wonder the company has survived at all. From its incarnation as a struggling software firm to its present day status as a struggling giant of the new media, America Online's story is one of close calls, good timing, and lots of chutzpah always in danger of being sabotaged by poor judgment, shoddy business tactics, and Congress's fervor to censor the Internet.

Time and again, you'll find yourself shaking your head in wonder as AOL president Steve Case and his band of not-always-merry warriors pull their tails out of the fire in their never-ending bid to keep AOL growing.

Particularly spell-binding are the details of the takeover effort by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Key AOL officials on vacation in New Orleans scrambled from pay phone to pay phone in the Big Easy, as they arranged a board conference call that installed a poison pill to derail Allen.

But as intriguing as AOL's high-wire act may be, it can't save Swisher's retelling of how it happened. In fact, "aol.com" is a bit like cyberspace itself - full of promise but often unable to deliver.

Part of what hinders Swisher's efforts is her softball treatment of AOL. For instance, Steve Case, often a controversial figure, emerges as a misunderstood Wunderkind.

This approach becomes particularly grating when Swisher touches (and I do mean touches) on some of AOL's more controversial practices, such as the shoddy way it treated content partners during pricing changes, until pressure from investors and Wall Street forced it to reform.

In fact, as questionable practices and decisions suddenly appear in various chapters, one starts to come away with a picture of AOL that raises doubts about its business ethics. Unfortunately, Swisher, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, always gives AOL the benefit of the doubt, and many troubling situations, while mentioned, are not properly explored.

Perhaps this attitude is most obvious in the chapter detailing the battle waged by AOL, other online services, and the American Civil Liberties Union against the Communications Decency Act. While the description of how AOL's main attorney carried out his battle plan is fascinating, Swisher mentions, but then ignores, the fact that in the early days AOL was to a large degree built on chat-room sex talk.

Ultimately, "aol.com" is not so much a revealing and probing look at AOL as it is a readable, but sanitized, history lesson.

* Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Monitor's electronic edition and a long-time AOL member. You can e-mail him at tom@csmonitor.com

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