Pathfinder, we hardly knew ye

The demise of Time Warner's megasite provides a caution to today's portals -- and a clue to the cable takeover wars.

Topics: AOL,

Time Warner’s Pathfinder was — and, for a brief while longer, remains — such a muddle of a Web venture that even its recent obituaries couldn’t quite pin down how to describe it.

“A pioneering outpost in cyberspace,” the New York Times labeled it. News.com, which first reported the details of Time Warner’s plans to dismantle Pathfinder last week, referred to it as “the media company’s giant, long-beleaguered pre-portal site.” Over on the Channelseven site for advertising and marketing news, a writer even dubbed it “Time Warner’s search engine.”

You know you’re in trouble if you’ve been in business four and a half years, spent tens of millions of dollars, been the subject of endless thumb-sucking media reports — and people still don’t even know what to call you.

Time Warner’s many goofs in launching and steering Pathfinder have been well chronicled. While one arm of its empire was placing a big bet on the folly known as the “full service network” — an interactive-TV experiment in Orlando, Fla. — the corporation was also putting its money into the Web in a serious way. That itself was smart — but it was the Pathfinder project’s last sign of intelligence.

Time Warner set out with one massive misconception: It decided to organize a consumer-oriented Web site around its corporate org chart rather than its established brand names like Time, People and Fortune. Somehow Web users were supposed to figure out that if they wanted to go to any publication or site owned by Time Warner, from Dr. Ruth and Dr. Weil to CNN, CNNfn and CNNSI, they should visit www.pathfinder.com — as if the average Web user bothers to keep up with the latest plays in big media’s game of Monopoly.

Time New Media vice president Jeffrey Coomes explained to the Times last week that “the decision to dismantle Pathfinder was based on the fact that most consumers go directly to the individual magazine sites and skip the Pathfinder home page.” Uh, of course. That people would do so was obvious back in 1994 to anyone with the slightest understanding of Web navigation — yet the news apparently took four years to percolate through the Time Warner hierarchy.

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What were they thinking all that time? As the wags who have assembled the tongue-in-cheek Pathfinder Museum site put it in a mocking tribute: “It is our firm belief that someday, people will begin to re-appraise the Great Content Aggregation Movement of the mid-1990s, and see the true genius of its major thinkers, who conceived Pathfinder as an all-encompassing umbrella and executed it using the best 20th century management techniques available. They came, they saw, they aggregated, but they ultimately failed to win the hearts and minds of the Internet’s fickle, ungrateful usership.”

Time Warner compounded its initial mistake with a series of smaller missteps. Its execs bought in to the notion that advanced technology and fancy graphics would lure the Web masses, and they watched helplessly as their slow-to-load home page and bug-ridden special features languished while the simple, text-only Yahoo soared to become the Web’s most popular site.

Pathfinder’s woes are legendary, and its drawn-out death throes have long been
predicted.
But its fate isn’t only an indication of one media behemoth’s folly: It’s a grim warning to all the other “portal” sites out there today, sitting pretty on high stock valuations and thinking that they know the Web business better than Time Warner did.

If you think the “Great Content Aggregation Movement” is a relic of the past, think again: Have a look at Disney’s Go.com. The Go Network “aggregates” Disney properties and partners like Infoseek, ABC, ESPN and Mr. Showbiz. Go’s designers are smarter than Pathfinder’s were, and they’ve ripped every page out of the successful-portal-strategy playbook they could, from filling the home page with simple text links to using a search engine as the page’s centerpiece. But at its heart, Go is a latter-day Pathfinder — a leviathan Web site built around a meaningless new brand name and organized according to a corporation’s ownership structure rather than a user’s needs.

Why do the big companies keep making the same old mistakes? Is it because, as scions of old media, they are all stuck with a broadcast philosophy that assumes bigger is always better? Is it because their leaders aren’t Web users themselves and so never catch on to how people actually use the medium? Is it because they are so dazzled by meaningless Media Metrix numbers that they try to boost their ratings by pooling their properties into single domains — even if that makes no sense to users?

Maybe. But these days I think every wannabe portal executive has the same thing in mind: They’ve all got AOL envy.

America Online — 17 million users and growing! All captive targets for a ceaseless barrage of pop-up ads! Never mind that probably a third of those users signed up just to get an e-mail address and rarely do anything else with their accounts — and another third joined up to chat. To media execs, 17 million is a number to sink your teeth into — the kind of number that Pathfinder’s founders once dreamed of, and Go’s creators plainly yearn for.

There’s one little problem: 17 million people have joined AOL not because of the sterling reputation of AOL’s content or the rich array of its services; if quality of content or “community” or even e-commerce were the deciding factor, AOL would be an also-ran. Millions keep joining AOL because, for the large proportion of the U.S. population that does not relish wrestling with computers, AOL has the reputation of being the simplest path to an online connection.

AOL’s allure, in other words, is that it is an Internet service provider with no-brainer access to e-mail and the Web that no one else has been able to compete with. And owning the user’s connection to the Net is what has made AOL a Wall Street darling. Its users are captives and its services are “sticky” in ways that Go and Lycos and Yahoo and Pathfinder can never match — unless they decide to invest in building vast proprietary networks and phalanxes of dialup modems.

Time Warner isn’t investing in old-fashioned modems, but it does own a cable modem service called RoadRunner. And today the cable companies’ efforts in the “broadband” cable modem market are all aimed at establishing an AOL-like relationship with Net users — to supply both the connection and the content.

What AOL is afraid of is that something like Pathfinder sitting on top of a high-speed cable Internet service like RoadRunner — or Excite sitting on top of AT&T/TCI’s @Home — will steal its future by duplicating its model. Which is why AOL is currently engaged in a fierce lobbying campaign to force the cable companies to allow competing services — like AOL — to use their high-speed wires under “common carrier” type rules.

AOL is now squaring off chiefly against AT&T, which owns cable giant TCI and is about to buy another big cable outfit, MediaOne — which happens to own a chunk of RoadRunner. The MediaOne deal could turn AT&T into the dominant player in the Internet-by-cable industry, and AOL doesn’t want to get locked out.

It’s the kind of battle in which neither side deserves much sympathy. On the one hand, competition is good, and AOL is right to want to break any incipient cable monopoly. But all the cable people are doing is playing AOL’s own monopolistic game, saying, “We’re the service provider — we set the rules.” After all, if you’ve got a cable-modem account, you can still access AOL — at its Web portal, www.aol.com, on the open Web. You’re just not going to be giving AOL your credit card number or visiting its proprietary areas.

Here’s what I think a fair outcome would look like: AOL ought to win its battle and earn the right to provide Internet services over AT&T’s cable lines. Then it’s only fair to turn the tables and demand that AOL open up its proprietary service. If the cable companies are going to be treated as “common carriers,” let’s treat AOL as one, too. In the Net era, it’s not ownership of wires that makes a company a public resource and forces it to take on public responsibilities — it’s ownership of credit card numbers and markets and minds.

Under such rules, AOL would have to allow competing portal providers to offer their services to AOL customers in AOL’s proprietary network areas. Gee, maybe there’s a future for Pathfinder after all!

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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