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Tuesday, 11 January, 2000, 03:49 GMT
Steve Case: Master salesman

By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington 

Steve Case heads the world's largest online service, America Online, but it is his grasp of the low-tech that has allowed him to become one of the biggest players in world of high technology.

He comes from a marketing background, and so far, his focus on ease-of-use and content has put AOL ahead of well-heeled competitors such as Microsoft's MSN.

"We recognised early that the killer [application] was people," Mr Case told Wired magazine. 

Juice stand

Unlike Bill Gates - computer programmer turned mega-mogul - Mr Case is a salesman at heart.

When he was growing up in Hawaii, he ran a neighbourhood juice stand with his older brother.

Later, the two brothers started Case Enterprises, delivering newspapers and selling seeds and greeting cards.

He studied political science at Williams College in Massachusetts, where his father went to school.

His least favourite class was computer programming, but computer networking, especially the ability to connect computers and users over vast distances, fascinated him.

After university, he began his career at consumer products giant Proctor & Gamble helping to sell hair conditioner.

Two years later, he went to Wichita Kansas to conduct market research for PepsiCo's Pizza Hut division.

Help from big brother

In 1983, his older brother and former business partner in their youthful business ventures, Dan, introduced him to the executives at Control Video Corporation.

The company offered a service that foreshadowed online software delivery. Using a device that plugged into the Atari 2600 and a telephone line, the service downloaded games on a pay-per-play basis.

Unfortunately, it was launched just as the first wave of home video gaming was coming to an end, but the company transformed itself into Quantum Computer Services in 1985.

Before online access meant logging on to a commercial Internet, Quantum launched an online service for Commodore computers.

The service promised to be useful, easy to use and entertaining. Its proprietary software offered sound and colour graphics.

Mr Case negotiated deals to provide services for computers from Apple, Tandy and IBM, but he ran into trouble because of the high cost of the services.

The Case era

In 1991, Mr Case, then the CEO of Quantum Computer Services, thought the company needed a new name, and he held a company contest to choose one.

Employees suggested Quantum 2000, Crossroads, Explore and Infinity, but he voted his own idea the winner. America Online was born despite protests from employees.

The newly-named competitor shot past its competitors, so much so that in 1993 both Bill Gates and his Microsoft co-founder made separate attempts to buy AOL.

"I can buy 20% of you or I can buy all of you, or I can go into this business myself and bury you," Mr Gates said at the time.

Mr Case did not sell, and said in one interview: "I was always motivated by the belief that [AOL] should not be subservient to someone else."

He is fiercely protective of the company and has said that he shares Intel co-founder Andy Grove's belief that, in business, only the paranoid survive.

The nimble giant

AOL has faced many challenges in the 1990s. Many predicted that the Internet would doom the proprietary service because people would not pay for content that they could largely get for free.

It also responded to flat-rate Internet service providers by offering its own flat-rate plan. In the process, its servers were swamped and many derided it as America On Hold.

The casual Mr Case, who dresses in khakis and often props his feet on his desk, met the crises calmly.

The marketer blanketed the US with CDs of its software - some in the US use the seemingly-ubiquitous discs as coffee coasters.

But the effort has been effective, and subscribers flocked to the service, making it the world's largest online service.

And instead of scaling back on AOL's content, Mr Case continued to build the online service's stable of online content.

The company went from being a take-over target to a major new media power, beginning a buying binge in 1994 that continues unabated to this day.

In the process, AOL has bought Netscape, former competitor CompuServe and now Time Warner.

Once described as the Ted Turner of online services, now Mr Case is Ted Turner's boss.

Mr Case will use Time Warner to extend the "AOL Everywhere" strategy.

The master marketer wants to free AOL from the desktop computer and deliver his company's content to televisions, mobile phones, handheld computers and as yet to be developed devices.

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