Calacanis quits AOL, leaving Netscape's navigators rudderless

Will AOL's new management pull the plug on Netscape?

Following the sacking of his 'mentor' AOL CEO Jonathan Miller earlier this week, it's been confirmed that Jason Calacanis has decided to quit AOL. Calacanis is quoted in the New York Times as saying: "I’m not inclined to start over with a new guy". That new guy being Randy Falco, the former president of the NBC Universal Television Group.

However, timing is everything. Could it be that Calacanis was just waiting for the right time to leave? He is after all, a serial entrepreneur. One had to wonder how long AOL could keep Calacanis' feet tied to the ground (it was only a few days ago that he was predicting 20 years of growth for online advertising).

PaidContent suggests that Calacanis' departure was imminent, and Miller's exit simply paved the way:

The excuse at hand: this week’s unceremonious replacement of Jon Miller, who he says is a mentor, with NBCU exec Randy Falco. With Miller’s departure and the previous decision by Ted Leonsis to give up his operational role, two of the three people who brought him to AOL would be gone. (The third is Jim Bankoff, who is responsible for content and publishing.) But we’d already heard that Jason was planning an exit—one source who is not directly involved said he already has backing for a new venture.

Whether Calacanis already has a next project in hand, we can only speculate, but one thing I'm sure of, there will be a next project, and it's likely to be something in the media 2.0 space - especially with all those ad dollars floating around.

Nick Denton in Valleywag writes:

So, what next? My guess: a rapid re-entry, with a well-funded venture in internet media, probably podcasting or wiki directories, judging by the topics Calacanis covers in his personal writing. He’ll be loud, infuriating—and probably, irritatingly, successful.

I'm also sure that Calacanis would never had stayed this long at AOL, if he wasn't given the backing to conduct his notorious Netscape experiment. Turning Netscape from a 1.0 portal (that time forgot - but many users didn't), into a social news site modeled on Digg, was ambitious to say the least. Offering to pay submitters (or bribe existing Digg users) sent out a message that he meant business - and more importantly that AOL was willing to take risks.

So now that Calacanis has left, where does that leave Netscape?

By all accounts, Calacanis hasn't had much to do with the day-to-day running of Netscape for some time - so in the short term, I don't think it makes the slightest bit of difference. The whole point about a socially driven news site is that its well being is almost totally reliant on the community, and the community won't be shaken by Calacanis' exit. (It might be a different story if Kevin Rose abandoned Digg). In the longer term the story could be a very different one. With the Netscape experiment being only a few months old, the jury's still out. But with Calacanis leaving, Netscape has lost its chief evangelist and a heavyweight within AOL to fight it's corner. Further down the road, AOL's new management might take a quick look at the numbers - and decide it's time to pull the plug.