Kara Swisher

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AOL Readies Board Picks for Spinoff–While Holding Off Search Suitors (Plus, BoomTown Director Choices!)

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According to sources close to the situation, AOL has been busy selecting the board for the company, which is still set to spin itself off by year’s end–even as it slows down a decision on a new search deal with either current partner Google or a more emboldened Microsoft.

AOL is using Spencer Stuart in the search for directors, led by well-known headhunter Jim Citrin, sources said, and the company has already settled on several outside candidates.

The final board is likely to have about 10 members, and up to a dozen.

At least one of those seats will go to CEO Tim Armstrong, with one or two more claimed by its current corporate owner, Time Warner (TWX).

AOL and Time Warner made their own wish list of potential directors earlier this year, but some people are also lobbying the company to join the board.

BoomTown is working on discovering all those names, but sources added that the candidates being looked at are a mix of personalities culled from the media, advertising and Web worlds.

Among the key attributes: More presumably fast-forward and innovative Silicon Valley types that can help burnish AOL’s tarnished tech cred.

Here are some of my picks:

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Guitar Hero CEO Dan Rosensweig, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg (actually, AOL should buy the start-up), eBay (EBAY) CEO John Donahoe, LinkedIn Chairman Reid Hoffman or CEO Jeff Weiner, Juniper Networks (JNPR) CEO Kevin Johnson, Netflix (NFLX) CEO Reed Hastings, and former AOL iconic exec Ted Leonsis.

And, just for fun, News Corp. (NWS) digital don (and ousted former AOL head) Jon Miller or former Yahoo President Sue Decker.

(I might also add former AOL exec, Netscape co-founder and all-around entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, but if he joins another tech/Web board, he is going to get splinters.)

That’s because Armstrong has set a strategy centered around the turbocharging of online content, powered by a more flexible platform and paid for by goosing AOL’s graphical advertising business.

This puts the online icon–once a powerhouse and now not so much, having operated inside Time Warner since its merger early in this decade–in more serious competition with Yahoo (YHOO).

Yahoo now dominates content on the Web, with powerful news, sports and finance sites, and has recently been trying to reinvigorate its brand. This week, it launched a new marketing campaign with the motto, “It’s Y!ou.”

Yahoo also recently struck a search technology and advertising partnership with Microsoft (MSFT), which has now aimed its efforts at AOL.

According to sources, Microsoft execs have been aggressively courting AOL to switch its search business from Google (GOOG).

The search behemoth has long been AOL’s partner in what sources at both companies said has been a productive and lucrative relationship.

Armstrong is also a former top exec at Google, which many at the company hope will further cement its chances.

And while the renewal of that deal does not officially need to be struck until late next year, sources add that Google has already prepared and offered what it considers an attractive new deal for AOL.

But, much to Google’s chagrin, with a focus on the spinoff and preparations for some more cost-cutting in the months ahead, AOL has decided not to accept it yet and is not likely to anytime soon.

While hedging the situation in a recent video interview with MediaMemo’s Peter Kafka, Armstrong has also recently met with Microsoft execs, sources said, who have discussed a number of partnership options with him, including a tighter relationship with its MSN content properties.

“There’s no need to rush, especially since there is already a lot on AOL’s plate,” said one source close to the situation. “And, since it has options, AOL is going to take time considering them.”

(For more on Armstrong’s thinking, here’s a link to another video interview I did with Armstrong while both of us were in Germany today, in which he talked about the ad market and AOL’s strategy, but was cagey about being more specific.)

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.


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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