AOL has been in the news this week with changing the face of tech journalism once again, as we wrote about here. So I started going down memory lane and the list of their acquisitions over the past couple of decades. It is an interesting selection of mostly misplaced investments. But what struck me was how AOL was in the right place, but not necessarily at the right time or for the right price. And many of these buys enabled Internet gazillionaires to flourish and found their own tech ventures later on that were key players in our industry.

Sure, they have had some major influences on our industry and our tech lives. And certainly the number of CDs that they shipped with their software back in the day was prodigious, prompting lots of street art and late-night jokes. But did you know about all of their purchases down through the years? Here are some of my favorites:

  • The purchase of Tegic back in 1999, for example, which you probably use every day when you text someone: Tegic invented T9, the predictive technology behind texting.
  • How about Weblogs, Inc., which made Jason Calacanis into a VC and made blogs popular, although others wrote the code that we use now (Wordpress et al.)
  • eVoice, one of the first Internet-based voicemail and fax services was acquired by AOL in 2001 and eventually sold to j2 Global Communications a few years later, where it still flourishes.
  • Navisoft, which had one of the first Web servers and patented online publishing technolgoeis and was the bees knees back in the mid 1990s.
  • WAIS, one of the first search engines that preceeded Google by many years. One of its founders was Brewster Kahle, who went on to form Alexa (later acquired by Yahoo) and the Internet Archive. AOL paid out $15M for this one.
  • Xdrive, one of the first online storage companies. Now we think nothing of having our files in the cloud, but Xdrive used a desktop client to move data online; which was its downfall. AOL shut the company in 2009.
  • And of course Netscape where the browser became its own operating system. Back in 1998, AOL paid $4.2B for this baby. Probably this company's second most notable moment was making Microsoft into a monopolist, and AOL getting $750M as a settlement. That is probably the best ROI that AOL ever had on one of their purchases. Netscape is now survived by Mozilla, and its purchase made many into VCs as a result, including Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark.

    Looking over this list, AOL has succeeded in spite of itself. Maybe not for its investors, but despite all the jokes and spectacular over-paying, AOL has been a driving force in our industry and made some very important deals.