Since I hopped on the Fool train, I have spent less and less time gawking at the daily machinations and gyrations of my poor, perpetually under-performing, personal portfolio. I know everybody says that they don't look, but I really don't (well, not very often anyway) these days. It's not just that I'm busy (though I assure you, I work 14-hour, blood-and-sweat days� nudge, nudge, wink, wink), but because here I'm encouraged to try to gain actual insight into companies. Checking the quotes just seems less meaningful every time I do it.

It's like an evening meal. When you're in a hurry, you get some fast food -- tastes OK, but it's all fat and empty calories, not really satisfying -- and then return to your work. That's the quick portfolio check. But when you get up at four in the morning, stuff a turkey with cranberry dressing, put it in the oven, let it fill the house with its delicious aroma all day long while you mix up a mess of greens, potatoes, squash, and a pecan pie -- taking lots of breaks to watch football, play some catch with the kids, and pull your sweetheart up close and let her know how much she means to you -- man, that's a meal worth eating, one that sticks with you long after it's over. Y'all may eat fast food, but give me slooowww food any day of the week!

Research is the real meat and potatoes of investing.

I'm still trying to digest the deal between America Online (NYSE: AOL) and Time Warner (NYSE: TWX). I have been asking myself (like many of you, I'm sure): "Why would AOL do this to itself? It had such a nice, light business model. Why did it wreck things?" The fast-food answer seems to be that AOL went in pursuit of cable tied to content, lost sight of its central mission, and overpaid for the privilege of hanging an enormous lodestone around its neck. This reaction is implicit in the negative short-term but lingering response of the market.

After reading the AOL and Excite@Home (Nasdaq: ATHM) message boards -- two of the very best in Fooldom -- I'm not so sure anymore. Here are some of my thoughts.

"Why buy a cable company, and have to deal with hardware problems? Why not just make deals with them? And why buy the smaller Road Runner system instead of @Home?"

Let's take it as a given that the Internet is going high-bandwidth to accommodate streaming video. Cable is really the best vehicle in this market, because it's significantly faster than DSL or satellite. If you're the master of dial-up Internet service providers (ISPs), how do you make the transition to the new platform?

AOL has built its kingdom on first-time, inexperienced Internet users. They have spent huge percentages of their revenue to attract these folks to their service, and, once there, AOL has addicted them by means of its community. Community, I say, not content, is what has made AOL the lasting ISP choice for its subscribers. (Another factor, of course, is that switching your account creates problems, since you have to repersonalize your home page, make new lists of favorites and buddies, change your e-mail address, etc.) This is why AOL derives two-thirds of its revenue from subscribers and continues to increase its enrollment, even though it charges more for its service than, as far as I know, every other dial-up ISP, many of which are now free.

As people switch to broadband, however, they are currently presented with one default ISP: Excite@Home or Road Runner, depending on your cable system. Sure, you can buy a broadband AOL membership for an additional $9.95 fee, but AOL has no access to the first-time user market. Right now, that's OK, because the first adopters of broadband are Internet-savvy folks who know how to find an online community without AOL. In a couple years, however, when Joe and Jane Average want to get broadband so that they can watch cheap movies and voraciously pillage the "General Hospital" archives, AOL wants to be there. It needs to have open access to the entire cable market.

So how does it get there? It could try to deal with the cable companies, but it would have to give each a piece of the pie like @Home did (who traded away about 65% of its revenues). It could buy @Home and its 73 million potential customers, but @Home has the aforementioned huge commitments to the cable industry, and it still has a lot of rollout work to do. AOL's not into that. It tried regulation, but the Feds so far have demonstrated unwillingness to legislate on this issue.

So, it bought Time Warner Cable, with a smaller footprint (that's "potential market" to you and me), and it got instant access to 20 million homes, 18 million of which have cable suited to two-way service (though there is still plenty of local infrastructure to put in place). That level of coverage, however, is not what AOL is really after. It wants the whole market. The solution? If you can't legislate open access, then simply create it yourself. So AOL agrees to open Time Warner Cable to all ISPs.

Critics doubted AOL's commitment to open access once it had a cable system, and they have called the Congressional open-access move disingenuous. I don't think so. I think that open access remains exactly what AOL wants, because it knows that, all other factors being equal, it can dominate the cable ISP market through the same methods it used to dominate dial-up: heavy marketing, placement on the default home page, brand name, and community.

It'll cost AOL time and money to set up its cable system, of course, but it should be money well spent. AOL can try to use it, coupled with its open-access mantra, to offer connectivity services to other ISPs, and make a tidy access profit in the meantime. Broadband hardware is a valuable commodity, and probably will be for some time to come. @Home has long understood its value, which is why it has guarded access very carefully. It seems to have hoped that it could shut out everyone else to the point that they came begging for (and willing to pay a high price for) access to @Home's infrastructure. Well, now those other ISPs may have another outlet. The political and economic pressure on @Home to open its cable lines may drive exclusivity out forever in 2002.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as AOL realizes. @Home, too, may soon come around.

--Brian Lund, TMF Tardior on the boards.

P.S. To discuss this column, please visit the RB companies board. For more Foolishness tonight, consider competing in a Fool's game called Oscar Wildness!