In a tech merger that only counts as a medium-sized whoop by current standards, Verizon is acquiring AOL for $4.4 billion. The news shouldn’t strike anyone as an out-of-left-field stunner: Bloomberg reported that the two companies were discussing such a deal back in January.
And yet the Twittersphere blew up this morning with chatter by people who seemed surprised, in many cases, to be thinking about AOL at all. Some of them riffed on iconic elements of the company’s past, such as those unavoidable trial-software CD-ROMs. But the first thing I thought about when I heard the news was a 15-year-old press release.
That would be the press release issued by AOL and Time Warner on January 10, 2000, when they announced their $350 billion merger. The transaction created a would-be 21st-century media powerhouse involved in everything from providing Internet access to making movies to running cable TV channels to publishing magazines to owning Yogi Bear.
The 2000 press release quoted Time Warner president Richard Parsons: “This is a defining event for Time Warner and America Online as well as a pivotal moment in the unfolding of the Internet age.” Which turned out to be entirely true…just not because of any of the aspirations of synergistic grandeur which prompted the merger. The whole thing turned out to be such a disaster that AOL Time Warner dropped the “AOL” from its name in 2003, as if to pretend that it had never happened. In 2009, it spun off AOL into a public company.
Looking back at the 2000 release, many of the benefits it outlines are clearly bad ideas from a different era. Movie passes for AOL subscribers! AOL discs in the “popular” Warner Bros. Studio Stores! Content from something called Entertaindom on AOL! These plans began falling apart almost the moment the deal was final: For instance, Entertaindom shut down two weeks later, and the Warner Bros. stores were shuttered in 2001.
A decade and a half later, it’s worth comparing the 2000 press release with the one Verizon just issued about its acquisition. Aside from 2.1 million remaining dial-up customers, today’s AOL has little in common with the behemoth it was at the turn of the century. The buzzwords are all different–note the new one’s mention of soon-to-sound-quaint acronyms such as “IoT” and “OTT.” And the 2015 release is far shorter than the 2000 one, especially when you subtract the lengthy boilerplate disclaimers at the bottom.
But the documents have one thing in common: They’re fascinating snapshots, each showing where the tech industry thought it was headed at a particular moment in time.