America Online Inc. all but silenced its doomsayers last year when the magical carriage that lifted its stock to new peaks didn't turn into a pumpkin as had been widely predicted time and again.
Investors saw their shares almost double in value in the past year. And while AOL's stock is far from stable -- it has swung from a 52-week low of $32.50 to a high of $95.81 1/4 -- analysts now view the company as the closest thing to a blue-chip pick in the notoriously fickle Internet world.
What makes Dulles-based AOL stand out -- the reason it has received applause from Wall Street -- may surprise people used to hearing about the billions of dollars the "dot-com" industry have been losing:
AOL is actually making money -- lots of it.
Last quarter, the company's gross revenue was $1.5 billion and fully taxed net income was $184 million, or about 15 cents a share. And analysts expect earnings from its current fiscal year's second quarter, which ended Dec. 31, to be even greater when they are announced next week. Youssef Squali, an analyst at ING Barings, attributes the rise to huge amounts of holiday-season advertising and online sales.
In 2000, many analysts say, the question for AOL will no longer be, "Will it still be around?" but rather, "How large and how pervasive will it get?"
Its membership has mushroomed from 15 million when 1999 opened to more than 20 million today. About 3.4 million of those users now are outside the United States and the company has moved aggressively to capture more international users as domestic subscriber growth slows.
In 1999 AOL effectively won the war with Microsoft Corp. over instant messaging when the software giant said it would give up trying to allow its subscribers to communicate with AOL's.
Recently, AOL has increasingly sold itself as a "consumer services" company rather than just a technology or entertainment outfit.
"Think of your PC at home as master control of your life," said AOL President Bob Pittman. "When you first get e-mail, you sign on at night on your computer and you think this is great. Then a year later you think, `Why do I have to wait to come home to do this?' You want it on your phone and through other ways."
To that end, the company has launched its now-ubiquitous "AOL Anywhere" campaign to make the service available through cell phones, hand-held computers and other gadgets. It has entered into more than $1 billion worth of marketing alliances with other great names: CBS. Blockbuster. Wal-Mart. Varsitybooks.com. Compaq. Casio.
AOL's biggest challenge in 2000, analysts say, is to maintain the fast and furious growth it experienced in 1999 -- not an easy task, given its new competition.
As Web sites that provide content merge with access providers that supply the telephone lines and cables, AOL faces unprecedented competition from free services offered through trusted names such as leading Web site Yahoo Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., and Excite at Home of Redwood City, Calif.
Still, many analysts agree with Merrill Lynch's influential Henry Blodget, who believes that Internet access will be a multi-priced business. Blodget compares AOL to Coke: Colas "are pretty much the same," he said. "The most important differentiator, arguably, is that people think they like the leading brands better. And . . . they are willing -- no, eager -- to pay more for this preference."