If AOL's bid for CompuServe is successful, it could mean a new look for the sombre service provider.
It could be exciting. Just as the browser wars were getting boring and Microsoft looked set to add the Internet to its list of conquered lands, AOL's bid for CompuServe could inject a new lease of life into the online services market. Bill Gates may still have a real fight on his hands.
If the rumours are true, there will be something of a culture shock crashing through the world of online services, particularly for CompuServe customers.
As AOL's UK MD Jonathan Bulkeley said in a recent PC Week interview: "CompuServe is very grey and sombre, AOL just isn't like that." Thank goodness. The corporate image CompuServe adopted when things started to get a bit hectic turned off thousands of users who promptly flocked to AOL with its friendly, consumer oriented interface and cooler content, not to mention flat rates, rounded bills etc.
In hindsight, the decision by CompuServe to dump the consumer and set up a more corporate oriented service was a bad one. Not only did the move allow AOL to chase dissilusioned CompuServe members, but it also gave it plenty of opportunity to point the finger at CompuServe for being a frumpy old-timer created for suits.
Let's face it, image is everything (unless you're thirsty) and CompuServe got a good lashing at the hands of a vigorous young contender, which is now prepared to let bygones be bygones and do the right thing.
The initial reaction to the bid rumour from the CompuServe camp, was, as expected, a little coy, with spokesmen desperately trying to evade questions relating to the deal - UK managing director Martin Turner was unable to comment. But there's a feeling in the industry that CompuServe has made a real hash of things over the past 12 to 18 months. For a company that boasts a worldwide membership of 5.3 million (compared to AOL's 8 million), it doesn't have the ability to react to criticism quickly enough. CompuServe is the only (commercial) service on the net that still uses those useless numbers to allocate e-mail addresses and always relies on the same excuse to explain why ... "Oh it's a bigger job than you can possibly imagine." Fine - but, it's been three years since I started complaining about it and I'm still 74431,1375!
If the unlikely couple do tie the knot, it will certainly put AOL in a dominant position, particularly in the US where it is already cleaning up. In the UK AOL has over 150,000 members. But it is the rest of Europe where CompuServe can provide AOL with the numbers it craves and the know-how to hang onto them. In Germany, where CompuServe is boss, AOL would do well to adopt a more low-key approach and exploit CompuServe's more conservative style.
And it needs to happen: CompuServe's own holding company, H&R Block, which owns an 80% stake, is keen to see the old CompuServe sold off and hasn't made any secret of its desire to be rid of the service. CompuServe seems to have done all it can and no longer has the passion to win this war. If a deal can be struck where the two can unite and set about clobbering MSN, develop a few neat technologies and generally make a difference, then great.
But the two companies have little, if anything, in common.
While CompuServe ponders over the ethical flaws in the Clinton Administration, AOL rants about pilgrims in cyberspace. But that's not to say AOL isn't passionate about what it's doing, it's just grasped the idea that people want to be entertained as well as intellectually stimulated.
For the customers, this deal could mean cheaper access - well, everyone will be entitled to AOL's flat rate scheme - cool email addresses - 74431,1375 could become [email protected] - and a head-to-head on battle with MSN to deliver the most gripping on-line content available. But for those in the know, switching from a provider that has battled to retain standards against a tide of competition to a company that has got on and done it may simply force a change of heart, a sigh and perhaps a moment to consider the passing of a trusted old friend.
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