This is Anti-AOL, so I’ll be brutally honest: AOLers aren’t the only ones glad to see Rondy go. Me, too! Years ago I had this sudden flicker of hope for AOL’s future – even if its past was in rags – when Jon Miller took over.
In light of AOL’s “Just cancel the account” fiasco this was what Miller had to say (sort of): “The hell with paid access – let’s become an ad-driven thingy and give away everything – content, software, and email – for free.” He knew AOL’s inability to give people good customer service, timely cancellations, and a decent software suite was entirely intractable, so he chose to move AOL on to greener pastures. I was happy for his arrival and about as excited for him as I could be, considering I’m jaded from years of disliking AOL.
Treachery Ends Jon Miller’s Reign
In November of 2006 there was treachery afoot at AOL as Jeffery Bewkes publicly praised Miller as “his guy”. The next day, Miller called Bewkes to ask him if it was true that he was finished at AOL. Many people, including those who once worked for AOL, those who still did, and mere onlookers, were puzzled. No one could see why a CEO with a seemingly bright future would be given the ax with no warning only a year and a half into carrying out his plans.
Miller’s replacements (there were two people to replace one, which I’ll explain later) were Randy Falco as CEO and Ron Grant as COO. Neither person made sense for AOL, since according to people in the know, Falco was a TV guy with no knowledge of the web, did not know how to use email, and was exceptionally terse and unpeople-oriented, while Grant had a personality that – according to those willing to comment – made root canals seem enjoyable. The end of an amazingly brief Golden Era was upon AOL.
You say Randy, I say Rondy…
Falco (a friend of Bewkes when he was hired to replace Miller) and Grant brought much more to the table than their exceptional inability to connect with employees, understand the Web, and plot the course of AOL’s future. They also brought a relationship that made them the butt of thousands of jokes: they were inseparable; Falco almost never appeared anywhere without his “Speak for me” guy by his side. Falco was touted by Bewkes as being an “operations guy” who could “fix” AOL but under his tutelage morale and innovation sank so low – and body-counts rose so high – that by mid-2007 it was obvious AOL’s future was hopeless if Falco continued to hang around.
After a bleak 2008 and an even bleaker early 2009, marked by 10% (700) of AOL’s remaining 7,000 employees getting the ax, the subscriber base falling to 6 million people from a rumored one-time high of 23-25 million, and revenue falling by 18%, along with total revenue falling by 20% and an operating loss of $1.1 billion, Bewkes sought out Tim Armstrong, the North America Sales and Operations President and Senior Vice President of Google. Of course – just as he did when he knew Miller was out and Falco was in – Bewkes told no one who his new pick was until the last moment.
While the rumor mill at AOL can accurately predict its own layoffs, promotions and demotions, there was not even a web rumor afoot about Tim taking over at AOL; as Kara of AllThingsD noted, that was odd. She claims the reason the AOL Talk Circuit didn’t fire up is that no one was told until about two hours before Falco and Grant were fired and Armstrong was ushered in.
Bewkes finally buys a clue…or does he?
Tim Armstrong is given credit far and wide and for making Google’s North American ad network arguably one of the strongest, most profitable ones in the world. Whether he deserves such credit is debatable. His accomplishments are spoken of in only the broadest of terms; no one explains what he accomplished to get Google where it is. I would place a question mark next to him – and another one next to AOL’s future – until more is said. Judging by one comment Armstrong made after accepting the CEO position, he wants to break AOL away from Time Warner. Should he, or is it too late to save AOL?