Kara Swisher

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AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong Talks: The 100-Day Check-In!

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After his 100-day VisionQuest to figure out what to do at AOL, Tim Armstrong is in a chattier mood.

The former Google (GOOG) advertising exec took over the perpetually troubled Internet icon in the spring and has been on a worldwide tour of its offices, meeting employees and trying to get a lay of the land of where the Time Warner (TWX) unit has been and where it should be going.

So, BoomTown did not waste a New York–where AOL has its HQ, in fact–minute in getting on the horn with Armstrong to finally hear his take.

There’s not a lot of new stuff to reveal, of course, beyond what Armstrong has already said over the last months about AOL’s new direction.

That would be a spinoff in November, a focus on advertising, content, local, communications and starting a venture unit.

Here is the interview, which we did by phone on Friday:

BoomTown: So, what’s your overall assessment of AOL and its prospects after your 100-day look-see?

Armstrong: Well, to start, I feel good about the company and where we are at. What I mean by that is that I feel good about what the company’s opportunities are.

B: What were you most surprised by on the downside and on the upside?

A: I think basically things were about 50 percent more negative and 50 percent more positive than I thought.

On the negative side, it has mostly been a crisis of confidence. I think people at AOL had started to believe the business press that it was just an incremental part of the Internet.

On the plus side, there are very surprising assets, which have been neglected, but are amazing. Such as Winamp, ICQ and the really incredible engineering talent all over the world–in India, Tel Aviv, Dublin.

B: What was the one thing you took away as the most important thing to do first?

A: Well, it is important for everyone to understand that AOL should not be in every business out there. That there are a limited set of things we have to commit to do better than anyone else.

Over the years, for example, there were so many acquisitions. But a lot of them became businesses that we were not fully committed to, and we have to start making clear choices and letting the rest go.

B: Such as?

A: Well, we are going to be focused on scaling content, advertising, email, messaging and local, but making it easier and less complicated.

In the ad business, for example, we have 100 products. I think we can be much more successful with less.

And we have different publishing platforms all over the world, just as the Web has become about having centralized technology. We have been missing the core characteristic of the Internet, which is about one platform.

B: Talk a little about what you are doing in the content space. AOL, via its MediaGlow unit, has been creating a lot of small blogs in a variety of categories, but also has big sites.

A: We are going to do both things. One thing I would say is that we have a content strategy that spans the content we create, the content we are buying and partnering on, and I think we have clear plans in terms of investing in each area.

B: What about communications?

A: I think you are very quickly going to see us cleaning up email products. And in the messaging space, one of the things we will be doing is integrating it more with other AOL properties.

Historically, the management has looked at messaging as how to drive monetization and it has been a bad experience. I think that it more important as a recirculation tool.

B: How realistic were you about AOL when you arrived compared to now?

A: I went into this job with my eyes wide open and I am not saying now that I have answers to every problem.

But I have been trying to do what it takes to solve the big ones, such as recruiting and building a team. I have also spent a lot of time finding talent in the company already here.

And, I have worked with people outside the company. I consider my job being whatever it takes and educate myself.

B: So what’s next, besides the already announced spinoff? Is AOL still an acquisition target?

A: I look at it in two different ways.

We need to stay very laser-focused on strategy and execution, as well as innovation.

And we have to build this company as a powerful independent one.

AOL has been looked at as a target for a long time, where AOL has been the prey. It might also change in that we can be the hunter too.

B: What about the online advertising and search deal with Google?

A: Well, it ends in December of 2010, as everyone knows.

I have to say that the partnership has been extremely successful on many fronts.

They have been our partners for eight years and there has been a lot of momentum.

But we also have to think about how to continue that for the right outcome for what we need in future, because AOL has changed since the partnership started.

Of course, we will look at other partners, but we also really know we have a great relationship that exists with a partner that is also going to be listening to us about what we need.


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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google