David Mandl on Fri, 22 Mar 2002 19:52:34 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> AOL's Latest Internal Woe

March 22, 2002
AOL's Latest Internal Woe: 'You've
Got Mail' -- 'Oops, No You Don't'


NEW YORK -- America Online is the world's most successful Internet service
provider -- except, apparently, in its own house.

In a humbling reversal, AOL Time Warner Inc. is retreating from a
top-level directive that required the divisions of the old Time Warner to
convert to an e-mail system based on AOL software and run by America
Online's giant public server computers in Virginia.

The drive to get all the company's 82,000 employees to use AOL e-mail was
an attempt to give symbolic resonance to the marriage of AOL and Time
Warner, the largest corporate merger in U.S. history and perhaps the
most-scrutinized litmus test for the marriage of the old and new

Instead, management got months of complaints from both senior and junior
executives in the divisions involved, who said the e-mail system,
initially designed for consumers, wasn't appropriate for business use
[what a lame excuse--D.M.]. Among the problems cited: The e-mail software
frequently crashed, staffers weren't able to send messages with large
attachments, they were often kicked offline without warning, and if they
tried to send messages to large groups of users they were labeled as
spammers and locked out of the system. Sometimes, e-mails were just plain
lost in the AOL etherworld and never found. And if there was an
out-of-office reply function, most people couldn't find it.


Time Inc., the U.S.'s largest magazine publisher and a heavy e-mail user,
was the company's worst-hit division. Late last year, ad sales executives
in Entertainment Weekly's Chicago office were trying to e-mail a
presentation to a major advertising agency. Because the system has trouble
handling large attachments, the e-mail didn't arrive. At the last minute
the office had to send a staff member in a cab with a printed version.

Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief, recalls that e-mails
containing final page proofs of some magazines never made it to his
computer because they were routed to an old e-mail address. He also
inadvertently offended then-People magazine Managing Editor Carol Wallace
by failing to reply to her e-mails. He just hadn't received them.

"The system didn't work well for heavy data and graphics users," says
Edward Adler, an AOL Time Warner senior vice president and corporate

But there was more. Staffers groused they had to log onto their office
computers using a portable electronic number tag that sometimes broke; and
they grumbled they were no longer able to use portable e-mail devices,
such as BlackBerries, because they weren't compatible with AOL. In late
January, executives at Warner Music tried to alert employees to problems
with the new system. "2% of e-mail is being lost," the internal e-mail
read. "If you are expecting critical e-mail, you may want to follow up
with the sender."

Apparently weary of the complaints, at a regular meeting of top executives
Wednesday, the company decided to allow divisions to use any e-mail system
they want, including those from International Business Machines Corp. and
archrival Microsoft Corp. If the divisions choose outside products, their
e-mail systems likely won't be housed on America Online's servers in
Dulles, Va. Some members of the company's tech staff have dubbed the
reclamation plan "Project Phoenix."

Divisions will now be able to pick "the system that better suits their
individual business needs," says Mr. Adler.


The e-mail problems have led many staffers to resume pre-Internet habits.
Employees say they are faxing and using Federal Express more than before.
They also are picking up the phone or wandering down the corridors in
search of human contact. "If all goes well, we'll never have to use e-mail
and we'll have to start talking to each other again," says one magazine

Dave Mandl

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