Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

The Softer Side of AOL

Finally, oh finally, the day has come when AOL has officially stopped manhandling its customers.

Again! But it actually might be the very last time we have to kiss and make up with the once mighty online service.


Could it be that unicorns will be appearing next?

Yesterday, AOL–about which I know a book or two–settled another case about how it treated customers who wanted to leave the service (well, more precisely, how it did not let them leave at all).

It paid a paltry $3 million to avoid going to court, in the case that involved 48 states and Washington, D.C., and also promised to make it much easier for users to cancel. New York, which got $1.25 million from AOL in 2005 for similar practices, did not participate this time and neither did Florida.

Let me just say from covering AOL for a dog’s age–this kind of behavior has not been known to be uncommon there. But, of course, this time the division of Time Warner did not have to say it did anything wrong either, even though it did.


To be fair, AOL has made it much easier of late to leave and also change service plans, all on its own. I recently downgraded my payments significantly, for example, by just clicking on a few buttons.

Previously, I would have had to fight a duel at 50 paces with one of the company’s crack shots, whose most effective trick was putting people on hold forever or endlessly transferring them until they withered and died.

It’s clear that the dramatic falloff in subscribers–once AOL’s Holy Grail, but chopped in half from 24 million only a few years ago to 12 million today–means there’s no sport or point anymore in aggressively trying to hold them hostage in the walled garden, as it once did, with all the gracious manner of a praetorian guard.

Now, of course, the company is in the midst of figuring out how to whisper sweet nothings in our ears to entice our lingering, whether it be via online shows it is producing, nifty software and widgetry, better email and communications tools and focus on free offerings on its free Web site rather than the main service reached via software.

And the business model obviously now stresses ad dollars rather than subscription fees. That’s great except it’s what a lot of sites like MySpace and Facebook–which are really the bastard progeny of AOL–are also doing.

Can AOL keep pace? I will be looking more closely at all this now that relatively recently installed CEO Randy Falco has been there long enough to have some impact.

So, hello Randy!

And, for my first question, I would like to know if the always-under-siege AOL’s old mantra (and the title of my second book)–“There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere” (a phrase taken from the old saw about the answer given by a boy being asked what he is doing digging in a huge pile of manure)–is still true or not.

Personally, this time I am hoping you dig out a unicorn.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik