Monday, October 24, 2005

The Scramble to Cannibalize AOL

The recent interest by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in Time Warner’s AOL unit seems to be confusing quite a few analysts and other observers. I do not agree that AOL is suddenly “valuable” again, as it was when it merged with Time Warner in the ‘90s.

Rather, these other companies see a possible opportunity to scavenge some of AOL’s parts on the way to changing the terms of competition in the larger arena in which AOL once played a dominant role. None of the three suitors would likely care about the dial-up access business, nor, for its own sake, the content portion of AOL. What they all want is AOL’s customer base to which to market their own collection of internet-oriented services.

Their very interests in the remains of AOL’s customer base signal that their strategies have devalued this older business model. AOL is a faded brand in a growth industry. Further, the industry has changed so much that companies with concepts still in their infancy in AOL’s heyday are now dominating it.

Google creates its value in other ways, and is perhaps looking to deny a piece of AOL to a competitor. The same is true of Yahoo. The combination of Yahoo’s and MSN’s messaging services further devalues AOL AIM system, because all of these are free.

The current competitive situation in this arena finds AOL still in possession of a customer base which sizable and somewhat unique. Before that is no longer true, these newer entrants, and one old one, Microsoft, are hoping to capitalize on the value of that base. The incidental businesses which originally attracted the customer base are probably not all that valuable to anyone now. If they were, AOL wouldn’t be in the trouble it’s in today.

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