AOL has always seen itself as a content firm, a vogue-ish conceit that is emulated by almost every other well-known name in WWW circles. I well remember when AOL announced plans to purchase CompuServe the babbling, then UK managing director Jonathan Bulkeley, was at pains to point out that AOL was not an ISP, or even an OSP, but a provider of content for distribution in any other number of ways. It was a boast that can be heard from any number of firms. Try telling Yahoo! that its business is searching the Web, or say to Disney that it is primarily a film producer, or remind Netscape that it made its name and early revenues in selling Web browsers. We're all in media content now, darling.
At first sight this sort of cross-fertilisation looks risible. What does Disney know about the Web, or Yahoo! about magazines, or AOL about TV? But the brand of all these firms is phenomenal. You can hardly switch on a TV news report that doesn't zero in on a worker at his or her PC with Microsoft, Netscape or Yahoo! prominently displayed. The new film, You've Got Mail, is all about email and there is talk of a Bill Gates bio-pic. The days of tech is dreck' when it comes to marketing are long gone. Even HP doesn't call sushi cold, dead fish anymore. So if you've got a brand, use it, right?
But AOL TV? For now at least it doesn't add up. TV as a front-end to Web content is a deeply flawed concept. TVs tend to sit in the living room and get watched by several people at once; Web surfing isn't a communal activity. Also, it's difficult to get the right user interface and input device when you're reclined on a sofa. You really don't want to use a keyboard and how many options can you get on a remote mouse.
The most obvious comparison is with WebTV Network, acquired by Microsoft last summer, in a blaze of publicity for about $425 million. That was a lot of dinero for not many users back then and it's been hauntingly quiet on the WebTV front ever since. Forrester Research predicts sales of Web TV and like devices won't hit one million until the year 2000.
Many of the technical breakthroughs have been made in displaying Web content over TV screens but useful interactivity that enhances the TV experience is trickier. Watching a football match you might want to find out about top scorers, league tables, player histories and so on but that means having staff keeping that information updated.
The virtual world involves a lot of leg-work as it turns out.