Why media companies should stay the hell away from technology

One of the most interesting things about the new generation of the web (“Web 2.0”) is that there’s really very little that’s actually new about it. Almost everything that’s being tried today was tried in the dotcom bubble of the 90’s, the big differences are that today internet penetration, hardware, software and bandwidth are all there to make it work, whereas there wasn’t 10 years ago. At least, that’s the standard story. Today though, I’m wondering if it really is a difference of technology or if it was more a case of managerial incompetence, on the part of one company in particular:

If people needs further proof of AOL and Time Warner’s lack of understanding of the Net and the software/IT world besides the firing of all the programmers on Netscape’s payroll that were contributing for years to the Mozilla project, one dark day in 2003 – people who was an invaluable asset for the corporation, allowing it to control its own software destiny and create more opportunities to itself, I refer people to Netscape Calendar. Yes, very few people remember it, but it worked, and it was active. Archive.org keeps a copy I think, dating back to April 1999. Until Netscape management decided to shut it down.

Shut down, like they did with “Netscape Radio” a music streaming services that was based on Real Audio feeds, which was *really* cross platform and worked well, before AOLTW execs turned it into an AOL brand -“Aol Radio”-, and incidentally stopped the cross-platform Real streams in favour of their own technology taken from Nullsoft but delivered as an ActiveX control that runs on IE only. They had to create a Mac OS-X version of the AOL Radio player from scratch last October to please the Mac community, still leaving out everybody else. All this effort and waste in the name of, what?. They had a Netscape Radio which worked across platforms from day one on Linux, Windows, MacOS, and was in operation. And they had a Netscape Calendar before Google Calendar, which they could have retooled using modern technologies like AJAX. And they had a Netscape Webmail that worked, at a time. Way before GMail. They just let it rot while Google steam rolled with its innovation.

One of the most fascinating stories in tech industry history is the speed and fury with which Bill Gates killed Netscape in the late 90’s – earning the ire of the Justice Department, tech industry, and consumers to do so. Although the reasoning was obvious, the overreaction by Bill Gates was surprising. It’s really only in retrospect that it’s clear how visionary the Netscape executives were, and Bill Gates for recognizing the threat. We all know how the story went: Microsoft bundled IE, giving away by default what Netscape had to charge for. Netscape tanked, got bought by AOL, which in turn merged with Time Warner. Microsoft got a stay of execution thanks in large part to the mishandling of both properties by Time Warner.

Let’s imagine a world where this never happened though, where Netscape managed to stay afloat or else got bought by someone with deep enough pockets to weather the Microsoft storm. Netscape could have, would have become what Google is today, powering the “web operating system” that stands to supplant Microsoft’s desktop operating system as the dominant way we interact with technology. Back then they were an software company and ISP – but I think with time the browser would have been open sourced either way, and Netscape would have focused on delivering web services, the precursors of which were all there – but Time Warner just didn’t have the vision to see it through, as the article describes.

Of course, this is but one example of Time Warner’s legendary incompetence. AOL earned a lot of ire from geeks by introducing a flood of technology ignoramuses to the internet (and single handedly killing usenet)… but taking a step back, the significance of that ought not to be understated. AOL created a portal that managed to cross that threshhold from geeks and reach the mass market of non-geeks… something decidedly rare in the tech industry. It could have gone truly platform agnostic and offered everything a user needed from within their software, making Windows irrelevant. Yet once again Time Warner mis-managed it into oblivion.

And rounding out the list of Time Warner incompetence – someone there had the vision to buy Nullsoft (Winamp), which in the hands of someone with a clue, could have become iTunes before iTunes was a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye.

Looking at what Google, Yahoo, and even Microsoft are doing today it’s clear just how much of it was thought up by Netscape ten years ago. Why didn’t it come to pass? Maybe it was the circumstances, maybe it was the technology. I think there’s a good chance it was Time Warner though – they had the vision to buy this stuff but not see it through. They looked at it with the vision of a media company, never seeing the long term repercussions of what they had, never looking beyond the next quarter, or looking at it as anything other than a way to milk their content some more. And that’s sad.

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