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Pathfinder, we hardly knew ye
The demise of Time Warner's megasite provides a caution to today's portals -- and a clue to the cable takeover wars.

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Let's get this straight | By Scott Rosenberg

May 4, 1999 | Time Warner's Pathfinder was -- and, for a brief while longer, remains -- such a muddle of a Web venture that even its recent obituaries couldn't quite pin down how to describe it.

"A pioneering outpost in cyberspace," the New York Times labeled it., which first reported the details of Time Warner's plans to dismantle Pathfinder last week, referred to it as "the media company's giant, long-beleaguered pre-portal site." Over on the Channelseven site for advertising and marketing news, a writer even dubbed it "Time Warner's search engine."

You know you're in trouble if you've been in business four and a half years, spent tens of millions of dollars, been the subject of endless thumb-sucking media reports -- and people still don't even know what to call you.

Time Warner's many goofs in launching and steering Pathfinder have been well chronicled. While one arm of its empire was placing a big bet on the folly known as the "full service network" -- an interactive-TV experiment in Orlando, Fla. -- the corporation was also putting its money into the Web in a serious way. That itself was smart -- but it was the Pathfinder project's last sign of intelligence.

Time Warner set out with one massive misconception: It decided to organize a consumer-oriented Web site around its corporate org chart rather than its established brand names like Time, People and Fortune. Somehow Web users were supposed to figure out that if they wanted to go to any publication or site owned by Time Warner, from Dr. Ruth and Dr. Weil to CNN, CNNfn and CNNSI, they should visit -- as if the average Web user bothers to keep up with the latest plays in big media's game of Monopoly.

Time New Media vice president Jeffrey Coomes explained to the Times last week that "the decision to dismantle Pathfinder was based on the fact that most consumers go directly to the individual magazine sites and skip the Pathfinder home page." Uh, of course. That people would do so was obvious back in 1994 to anyone with the slightest understanding of Web navigation -- yet the news apparently took four years to percolate through the Time Warner hierarchy.

What were they thinking all that time? As the wags who have assembled the tongue-in-cheek Pathfinder Museum site put it in a mocking tribute: "It is our firm belief that someday, people will begin to re-appraise the Great Content Aggregation Movement of the mid-1990s, and see the true genius of its major thinkers, who conceived Pathfinder as an all-encompassing umbrella and executed it using the best 20th century management techniques available. They came, they saw, they aggregated, but they ultimately failed to win the hearts and minds of the Internet's fickle, ungrateful usership."

Time Warner compounded its initial mistake with a series of smaller missteps. Its execs bought in to the notion that advanced technology and fancy graphics would lure the Web masses, and they watched helplessly as their slow-to-load home page and bug-ridden special features languished while the simple, text-only Yahoo soared to become the Web's most popular site.

Pathfinder's woes are legendary, and its drawn-out death throes have long been predicted. But its fate isn't only an indication of one media behemoth's folly: It's a grim warning to all the other "portal" sites out there today, sitting pretty on high stock valuations and thinking that they know the Web business better than Time Warner did.

 Next page | Is tomorrow's Pathfinder? -- and why everyone has AOL envy


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