How Steve Jobs would have fixed AOL Time Warner

October 25, 2011, 11:05 AM UTC

He mapped out a strategy to rescue the failing merger on a whiteboard in 2003

Jobs reviewing an early version of OS X. Photo: Brent Schlender

After a long meeting with Steve Jobs last year about what the iPad would mean for publishers, Fortune‘s technology editor Stephanie Mehta — known to her colleagues as “Stephanie Telephony” when she covered telecommunications — remarked that Jobs was a surprisingly astute student of other people’s businesses, including hers.

Case in point: A story Brent Schlender, who covered Jobs for 25 years, tells in the current issue of
about a similar meeting seven years earlier:

John Huey, who is now Time Inc.’s editor-in-chief, joined me at Apple (AAPL) headquarters in Cupertino in 2003, not for a story interview but instead to get Jobs’ advice on how he would clean up our struggling parent company, then known as AOL Time Warner. Steve looked at us incredulously and muttered something about what a waste of time it was to look in the rearview mirror. He then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes methodically explaining in excruciating detail why AOL’s business model of being a dial-up Internet service was a complete mismatch and had served only to slow down Time Warner’s build-out of its much more promising broadband business. Then he waxed acerbic about why AOL’s “postcard production values” for its online content were so “hopelessly last-century.”

“Well, I guess that means you don’t think it could be fixed,” Huey said. To which Jobs replied, “I didn’t say that. I know how you could fix it. I’m just not interested.” Then, inexplicably, he went to the whiteboard and spent 15 more minutes mapping out a strategy right off the top of his head to turn AOL into something more like a media company. (That’s more or less the course AOL eventually followed, albeit with mixed success, after being spun out of Time Warner several years later.)

“That’s how I’d do it,” he concluded, snapping the cap back on the dry marker with a flourish. “But like I said, I’m not interested.”

The anecdote is part
Steve Jobs and Me
, in which Schlender reminisces about his unusually close relationship with his subject (Jobs invited Schlender’s children to his house for a Toy Story pre-screening and visited Schlender twice in the hospital when he nearly died from a freak infection). It’s a lovely piece of writing, and it’s available online here.