Interviewed by John Papageorge.
Story by Kevin Ashburn.
Ted Leonsis views the Internet as a lump of clay waiting to be sculpted into a work of art.
Yet the president of America Online, who's been involved with new media since 1982, also sees the constraints. The Web, he notes, lacks the economic advantage of early television, in which advertiser dollars paved the way for engaging programming.
"I don't think there's an Internet marketplace," Leonsis says. "I think there's a set of business methodologies and technologies, and that entrepreneurs will take advantage of the power that's available.
"It's not unlike when there was a telecom industry that made satellites and fiber and cameras and electronic news-gathering equipment -- but it took a Ted Turner to weave it together and make a 24-hour news service."
The eventual online environment, Leonsis believes, will be cut from the same cloth as AOL -- which holds that technology is for the masses and should be as docile as one's remote control.
Though these sentiments have made Leonsis a frequent target on the online shooting range, he continues to champion the common Web user.
"We believe that consumers will decide who wins in this business," Leonsis says. He maintains that Web surfers will pledge their loyalty to the path of least resistance, leaving the old cyberguard to talk about how the Net was lost.
Leonsis is well on the way toward achieving his vision. With 3.5 million users and a reported billion dollars in sales, AOL is already the leviathan of the online world. And with Netscape now on board as its Web browser, AOL has seemingly shed its Achilles heel.
Still, Leonsis wants more numbers.
"You really need 20-million plus [users] to be a national ad buy, to get the Proctor and Gambles interested in you," he says. "I think we're a good five years away from having a nationwide cable-like audience."
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