In terms of pure technology, it's a mistake to view the mega-merger of America Online and Time Warner as simply a broadband cable play. This alliance is much, much bigger than that.
Only days before the merger was announced, AOL showcased its new "AOL Anywhere" initiative at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The idea is that AOL access is not just for personal computers anymore. It's for a range of interactive information devices that connect AOL subscribers no matter where they might go.
As a corollary, this new initiative also means AOL is no longer about a single technology or delivery system. AOL Anywhere is about pervasive computing - computing that's with you (and in your face) at all times, no matter the location.
KEEPING YOU CONNECTED
Soon AOL's 22 million subscribers will be able to access AOL over a TV set, telephone (cellular and landline), wireless handheld device, in the car, at an airport - anywhere. The delivery method might be via cable modem or telephone line, or just as easily it could also be by satellite or wireless IP broadcasting. AOL doesn't care as long as it keeps you connected.
Sure, Time Warner offers AOL a jump-start to the second largest cable system in the United States. That's important in light of the AT&T initiative over the cable systems previously owned by TCI. But for the long run, delivery technology plays second fiddle to the more important implications of the deal.
The merger with Time Warner is simple recognition that interactive information delivery systems alone are not enough to attract and sustain a mass audience of paying subscribers. Along with e-mail, chat and Web surfing capability, interactive media needs compelling stories to draw and hold the crowd.
Time Warner is a purveyor of stories, even though today's Internet entrepreneurs use the disparaging term "content" to describe what fills their information pipes. It's stories - in the form of books, music, movies and news - that drive information technology. In the end, the quality of the stories determines success or failure.
"This is the first time a major Internet company has combined with a major media company, and the possibilities are truly endless," AOL founder Steve Case told reporters at a press conference announcing the merger. "The true value of this union lies not in what it will do today, but what it will do in the future."
The future, as outlined in the AOL Anywhere initiative, is evolving in many directions. Most basic, perhaps, was the recent redesign of the AOL.com Web site, which moves the service away from the proprietary software it has always used for on-line access. AOL subscribers now get one-click Web access - without AOL software - to e-mail, calendar, Instant Messenger, and, of course, on-line shopping applications.
Then there's AOLTV, a new TV-centric service that will be delivered through set-top boxes at first over conventional dial-up phone lines and later through cable modems, DSL lines and direct-to-home satellite. The new service will be deployed this year. So far, AOL has deals for the television service with DirecTV, Hughes Network Systems, Philips and Network Computer Inc. (NCI). As with all AOL offerings, AOLTV promises a fusion of basic interactive services with e-commerce applications.
"As connected interactivity becomes available on platforms like the television, AOL will be there for consumers. This extension of the AOL brand also will provide significant opportunities to our advertising and commerce partners." said Bob Pitman, AOL's president and COO.
THE PALM OF THE HAND
In addition, AOL has announced deals to offer e-mail services through handheld devices, including the popular Palm organizers now offered by several manufacturers. E-mail access will also extend devices using Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. AOL announced deals to include its service on several next-generation Palm-size computers including Hewlett-Packard's Jornada, Casio's Casseopedia and Compaq's Aero lines.
For those times when no computer is available, a subscriber can turn to AOL Mail by Phone. The subscriber dials an 800 number, enters an ID number and password and has e-mail read back in any one of seven languages.
These services are only the beginning of AOL's efforts to broaden its reach. Over time, expect to see AOL connectivity in airports, retail stores, your car and even on the treadmill at your gym. The AOL-Time Warner deal is about far more than cable access - it's about branding a large proprietary chunk of the Internet and creating a service that follows you anywhere, everywhere.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.