Jon Gertner is the author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”
In the spring of 1983, a young man named Steve Case was traveling around the United States and searching for the best pizzerias in every city. Case was not really a foodie; he was a recent graduate of Williams College who at the time worked for Pizza Hut and held the unlikely title of “director of new pizza development.” Essentially, his travels involved looking for new marketing ideas that could help his employer. “There are worse ways to live,” he recalls of the job in “The Third Wave,” a book that combines Case’s insights into his career with insights into the future of technology.
June 1983 was a pivotal moment for Case: It was the month when he made a short list of what he could do next. He was sure that some kind of digital revolution was about to sweep through the country, which meant there had to be more to the future than searching for pizza innovations. Should he take a job at a growing tech company such as Apple? Or should he take a gig with a consulting firm that advised Silicon Valley companies? He did neither. Following a tip from his brother, he went to Virginia to talk with a start-up called Control Video Corporation, or CVC. The company was trying to create a business in what might now be called online gaming — at a time when online businesses didn’t really exist. Case took a flier anyway and signed on.
CVC had some painful ups and downs over the next few years. Yet eventually, Case and his co-founders transformed the firm into an Internet services company that took the name America Online. Its early days were difficult, but by the time America Online (or more colloquially, AOL) became a public company in 1992, it was a business phenomenon. For those who didn’t live through America Online’s ascendancy — that impossibly distant era when dial-up service meant you couldn’t use your phone and the Internet at the same time — it is difficult to describe the company’s cultural significance: At one point, AOL had 22 million subscribers, and nearly half the traffic on the Web was coming through its portal. “For most Americans,” Case writes, “AOL was, for its time, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube and Instagram combined.”
There’s a fair amount of truth to that. The company’s growth, profits and technological dominance, moreover, made it the hottest stock of the 1990s. In short, AOL was the right company selling the right product at precisely the right moment. And Case — the clean-cut, hyper-optimistic, marketing whiz kid — was exactly the right leader.
It didn’t end well. AOL bought Time Warner in a catastrophic merger, and Case was eventually forced out. And that, too, is part of the story he tells in this book, which is noteworthy in part because Case has never before offered his own perspective on his career. (Until now the AOL story has largely been left to business journalists — Kara Swisher and Nina Munk, for instance — who have penned deeply researched, book-length histories of the company.) And yet, Case has written only the slightest of memoirs in “The Third Wave.” He is more focused here on merging his recollections about coming of age as an Internet CEO with his views on the next era of technology.
The future will resemble the past, Case believes. As he sees it, Internet giants such as AOL constituted “the first wave” of the digital revolution. These were companies that often had to overcome significant regulatory and technological obstacles — created by the Federal Communications Commission, for instance, and by antiquated telecommunication systems — to succeed. In this respect, the first-wave companies differed from the Internet’s more recent “second wave” companies — feisty start-ups that have seamlessly utilized social media or smartphone apps to gain enormous influence. Think Facebook or Twitter. To expand, the second wavers haven’t required what Case calls “the partnerships and perseverance” of their predecessors. They set up shop, wrote some excellent code, exploited the new infrastructure of the Web and quickly changed the world.
Case sees an approaching third wave of companies that will need more of the qualities of the first wave. The future, he asserts, will be shaped by innovative start-ups all over the country — not just in Silicon Valley — that will rely on data and computing to revolutionize established industries such as health care, education, finance and food production. This third wave, in other words, will transform highly regulated areas of the economy, which means entrepreneurs must work with government rather than around it. This might explain why Case has decided to write about his AOL experiences now. As he puts it, “The lessons from the First Wave of the Internet will be integral to the Third.”
Some aspects of Case’s thesis will seem unsurprising. If you follow the technology press, it’s hard not to notice that tech innovation is already infiltrating health care and education, and that an “Internet of things” promises to optimize a variety of industrial and commercial businesses (automobiles, airlines and energy, for example) with reams of data and analysis. What’s new and noteworthy here is Case’s effort to draw a connection between his own history and an impending era of change. Moreover, he’s particularly thoughtful on the subject of how digital innovation and existing regulatory regimes will need to work together in the coming decades. A seemingly dyed-in-the-wool centrist, Case has little patience with Silicon Valley’s more extreme libertarians, such as Peter Thiel, whose views he singles out as inimical to third-wave thinking. “The Valley is wrong to view government as the enemy,” he declares.
This isn’t just posturing; it is Case’s deep conviction. His current investment vehicle, Revolution Ventures, has its main office in Northwest D.C. rather than on Palo Alto’s Sand Hill Road. And the companies Revolution invests in are so closely aligned with Case’s government-friendly arguments that readers may get the uneasy feeling that Case is not only sharing his business philosophy in this book but doing aggressive marketing work for his investments, too.
Still, there’s little doubt that Case’s insights have value. Whether “The Third Wave” succeeds as a book is a different question. Case offers some vivid and absorbing character sketches here, especially his recollection of an early meeting with Bill Gates in which the Microsoft co-founder personally vowed to crush the upstart AOL. But some of the chapters about the later days of AOL are filled with score-settling jabs and self-justifying explanations — especially when it comes to the failure of the Time Warner merger. That’s Case’s right, of course. But when he laments that he had gone “from being the CEO of one of the hottest companies in the world, leading a board and a management team, to being something of a pariah with waning influence,” it still sounds self-pitying.
There are bigger problems here, though. The book’s structure — that mix of memoir and futurist tract — prevents the narrative from ever fusing into an integrated whole. Even worse, Case seems never to have heard a tech cliché he didn’t want to repeat, which means we get bombarded with jargon about “fundamental change” and “key influencers.” Toward the end, “The Third Wave” suddenly and unfortunately becomes a rousing call to arms that resembles a boilerplate college graduation speech. Among other things, Case exhorts the next generation of tech entrepreneurs to not just “play defense, play offense.” The least you can do is cover your ears and hope it ends very soon.
And thus we arrive at a contradiction: What Case thinks about the future of American business is worthy of discussion and consideration — and we can all be thankful he stopped selling pizza for a living. But do you really want to dial in here? Like those early days of AOL, “The Third Wave” crashes all too often.
By Steve Case
Simon & Schuster. 221 pp. $26.95