He helped craft one of the great growth stories of the 1990s. His regular letters to the America Online community gave the dot-com revolution a warm voice and a welcome face. With a subscription service so explosive that its membership gains were measured in millions, he helped marry the new with the old in the acquisition of Time Warner. AOL Time Warner's
Over the weekend, Case announced he would step down as the company's chairman after the media giant's annual shareholder meeting in May. Executive shuffles at the entertainment conglomerate have become a common occurrence since the merger closed two years ago. While the marriage of behemoths has proven unwieldy, problems on the macro level, such as a soft advertising market and a moribund music industry, have been petty potatoes compared to the problems at the company's flagship online service.
Growth has stalled at America Online. With less domestic and wired real estate to cover and a myriad of problems overseas, the company has resorted to cutting jobs and trimming marketing expenses to hold down the bottom line while the top line attempts to regroup.
Patience had worn thin with Case, as the board shackled him to zero-based budgeting; every line item was set to nil and every appropriation has to earn its keep, as if it was a new expenditure. Cost-effective yet as complicated as it is demoralizing, it's easy to see why Case would step down now. It's likely the thumbscrews would have only tightened from here.
If history is kind, it will remember Case as a nurturing visionary rather than the latest AOL Time Warner executive taking the fall for a situation without a quick fix. While accounting irregularities and poor financial results have tarnished the company, it's still the one to watch in so many facets of leisure's realm.
While former subscribers can point to the service's rigid structure and a lack of effective spam filters as critical shortcomings, America Online served as both the educator and the training wheels for the Internet experience. Case's resignation may be at a time when the prognosis appears bleakest, but even his biggest critics are unlikely to be appeased by the near-term results achieved by whomever takes his place.
Keeping core subscribers satisfied and trying to grow revenue channels may be a waiting game until the online ad dollar returns, but it will be far easier said than done -- or bled than won -- for America Online.