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Attention AOL Members: Are You Ready for MSN?

I resisted using some variation of the theme “You’ve Got MSN” in the title, since someone else beat me to the punch. Or maybe great (or not-so-great) minds truly think alike.

But let’s take my inevitable journey through the pages of history.

It’s hard to believe in retrospect, but at one time AOL was primarily a Mac service, but that was a long, long time ago. In those days, CompuServe was king of the hill, and that was long before it became the poor stepsister to AOL. At first, AOL was intended to be a consumer version of AppleLinks, Apple Computer’s business-oriented online service. But that deal became unhinged, and AOL decided to go it alone. Oh yes, Apple did use AOL’s technology some years later in its failed attempt to create a new online service, eWorld.

I became a member of AOL back in 1989, and, for several years, actually worked for them as a paid forum manager. That was in the days when its Mac message boards were well populated and among the most popular watering holes on the service. Sad to say, things changed for the worse over the years, as AOL went after a much larger market. Today, Mac users justifiably feel they’re getting short shrift, since the Windows versions of its software gets far more attention.

In any case, I don’t think anyone at the time could have predicted that AOL chief Steve Case would leverage the dot-com boom and bloated financial valuations to accomplish the biggest land grab of all, the acquisition of Time Warner. Of course, Case is yesterday’s news, apparently hanging out somewhere counting his billions, and the folks at Time Warner are trying to figure out what to do with its AOL division, which has been hemorrhaging members in droves. Yes, it’s profitable, and all that. But as broadband spreads across the land, you have to wonder why anyone would still pay AOL’s exorbitant dial-up rates, but they do. AOL is a comfort zone for millions, and its parental controls are still powerful enough to ensure a fairly safe environment for your kids, or as safe as any online environment can be these days.

Over the years, AOL has had a love/hate relationship with Microsoft. While competing with MSN, it licensed Internet Explorer early on when its ability to build its own browser had pathetic results. Of course, that was before AOL acquired Netscape, and you wonder why a Mozilla-based browser doesn’t dominate, but stranger things have happened. By the way, the Mac version of AOL, such as it is, does employ a Mozilla browser engine.

In any case, the latest rumors about AOL are nearly as strange as the news that it planned to acquire Time Warner several years ago. According to a story in the New York Post, not a paragon of journalistic integrity mind you, Time Warner is in talks to sell part of its stake in AOL to Microsoft. The end result wouldn’t necessarily mean a merger between AOL and MSN. It would reportedly involve AOL switching from Google for its search technology to MSN.

Now, as we all know, Microsoft’s biggest enemy these days is Google, so anything it can do to get a leg up on the search upstart would be a huge feather in the cap of Bill Gates. Even more significant than ego satisfaction is the another story, this time in the Wall Street Journal, that Google earns more revenue from AOL than any other single customer. If AOL gets in bed with Microsoft, Google would take one huge financial hit as would, no doubt, that $300 stock price.

Of course, such a deal is by no means certain and it would still have to be approved by the Department of Justice. And if it doesn’t come to pass, AOL might consider casting its lot with Yahoo and perhaps even Google.

Understand that all this talk is speculative. Officially, Time Warner and Microsoft aren’t commenting. Of course, I can see where Microsoft’s executives would have a sincere desire to make such a deal happen, and Time Warner executives no doubt are still smarting from being snookered into a merger by a mere online service.

Looking down the road, I suspect AOL’s future as an online service may seem somewhat uncertain, though with nearly 21 million members, it’s not going to go away. At least not yet.