Whatever colour you paint a donkey, the eeyoring is unmistakable. AOL’s new chief executive, Tim Armstrong, should consider that as he saddles up at the internet company. The management he replaces was not the first to be thrown by a business that many believe belongs in the knacker’s yard.
The temptation for the young ex-Googler was clearly the opportunity to make his name by transforming AOL. If Time Warner chooses to spin its problem out to shareholders – likely given the lack of interested buyers for it – Mr Armstrong will find himself running a public technology company. That is something the former sociology student was unlikely to achieve at a company of engineers, in spite of a successful career running Google’s North American advertising sales department.
What, though, can he do? Incredibly, AOL still runs a dial-up internet business that will continue to churn out cash as it withers. However, this has already been separated out on paper at least. The main company is a collection of internet sites connected by the AOL portal; a search business run by Google; Bebo, a social network popular with teenage girls in the UK, for which AOL paid $850m; and a mess of advertising platforms.
Bashing together the jumble of acquisitions made in recent years is one task where at least identifying the problem is relatively straightforward. A new broom will also help to restore sagging morale, and Mr Armstrong will ultimately be assisted by a recovery in the advertising market.
Yet the more existential problem for AOL is that it is a billboard in an online world with infinite billboard space. It has some valuable and popular content – celebrity site TMZ for instance – but as the world becomes used to the internet, the idea of a portal to guide the user through it seems one for a previous age.
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