Case's timing was, in its way, exquisite. In these first trading weeks of the new year, Wall Street has given tech stocks a cautiously optimistic boost; analysts and investors, listening for the first footsteps of a recovery, are looking anew for winners in the post-bubble era. That we were no longer (or not yet) living in Steve Case's world of set-top universes and double-digit growth rates has been (painfully) obvious for two years. But somehow, it seemed important that Case, in deed if not in word, admit it too.
Certainly Case and his company made the perfect Icarus. One of the Internet's great touts as head of AOL, he became one of its great arbitrageurs too when he engineered the merger with Time Warner just before the bubble popped. AOL shareholders who got out made out, but three years later the combined company's stock is down to $15 from $72 and the AOL unit is still looking for a model that can come close to the dizzying growth rates of the past. Throw in several ongoing investigations into accounting at the pre-merger AOL and the suspicion that in the end, it was only the hard assets of Time Warner that have saved AOL from a real meltdown, and you have the business world's last half-decade written in micrososm. In the saga of the century's biggest bubble, AOL Time Warner was the grand and culminating experiment, and Case by turns played its leading huckster, visionary, profiteer, and failure.
Now he's gone. Thursday, AOL Time Warner announced that current CEO Richard Parsons would assume Case's post as well. Yet nobody is quite giving up on the world Case and Gerald Levin were betting on three years ago whenever it may arrive. "Resignation May Help Ground a Visionary Medium," a New York Times story suggested; "Steve Case, Genius" was the title of an Op-Ed by journalist Nina Munk, who is writing abook on the travails of the combined company. "It took more than seven years before Wall Street acknowledged that the 1990 merger of Time and Warner was a success," she writes. "By that measure, it may be at least five more years before Steve Case is recognized as a genius."
Or as Case himself said Monday, "It's not over till it's over." If indeed the content-on-demand promise of broadband is realized, AOL Time Warner seems well-enough positioned to be a winner. But even if Steve Case's vision for the combined company and the Internet economy comes to pass, the test of his personal legacy will be whether AOL itself is still relevant when it does.