R.I.P. Propeller (formerly known as the New Netscape)

In 2005, my current boss, Brian Alvey, and my former boss, Jason Calacanis, sold Weblogs, Inc to AOL. At the time, I was the lead blogger for The Unofficial Apple Weblog and co-host of TV Squad‘s Lost Podcast with my friend Ryan j Budke and a regular contributor to multiple Weblogs, Inc blogs. I was also extremely active and outspoken in all our internal team email threads. I’d also just had my book PSP Hacks published by O’Reilly Press.

In 2006, I became a full time employee of AOL, as Jason Calacanis had hired me to be Managing Editor of a new relaunch of Netscape that was going to be—rather than a Digg clone, as many faulted it as being—a social news site similar to Digg and Reddit, but with the addition of an editorial layer. Popular stories voted up by users would be further researched, written about, and responded to, by an editorial staff that I was to assemble, largely from some of the most talented bloggers I’d worked with at Weblogs, Inc. We also launched Netscape Video, a YouTube-like service for users, but also including our own original video team that would go and shoot original coverage of various events.

I assembled an editorial team, we launched, we took the expected dip in traffic from the switch from the old portal format to a new non-portal format, and then something pretty awesome started to happen. Our traffic started to rise. We started paying top Diggers and Reddit users to do what they did on their other social networks on Netscape and it helped that traffic begin to rise more.

Our audience wasn’t the Digg / Reddit audience. It was a group of people, largely who had been using the old Netscape portal but who had never encountered Digg before, and who nevertheless stuck around, and tried it out, and, surprisingly, got hooked.

In late 2006, less than 6 months after we launched, Jonathan Miller left AOL. Then Jason left AOL. I was promoted to Director of Netscape and functioned as its General Manager.

An anecdote: Shortly after the execution of Saddam Hussein (like within hours of the event), someone uploaded the execution video shot with a cellphone to Netscape Video. This was before the “real time news” movement had really taken off and before Twitter had become a household name. We were on the cutting edge of the future and it was scary. I had to decide whether this execution video was news that we kept on the site, or something we censored or removed. We kept it with numerous warnings about the graphic nature of the content. I’m still not sure if that was the right decision, but I also don’t think it matters in the grand scheme of things. Not many people noticed that we were on the cutting edge of the future of real time news, especially not AOL.

Shortly after that, Tom Drapeau, Netscape’s Lead Developer, myself, and Andy Fraley, our designer, met with Jim Bankoff about the future of Netscape now that Jason was gone and Jim was our new boss. It was a great, energetic meeting and I was excited about the next phases of our New Netscape.

The following week, a story appeared on Valleywag, saying that Jim Bankoff was leaving AOL. Both Tom and I commented on the story that it was ridiculous and that we had just had this great meeting with him. About two weeks later, he resigned.

Then, what followed, was several months where I kept Netscape rolling, but I had no direct communication with my immediate boss at AOL. So after a lot of soul searching, I sent my boss a resignation email and he called me up on the phone less than 15 minutes after I sent it. I stayed on through March 2007 in an advisory role, but ultimately I had lost faith in AOL, and Tom became Director of Netscape.

I talked to Jason and became Editorial Director of Mahalo and we launched Mahalo in mid 2007.

At some point or another, AOL decided to spend far too much money on a social network called Bebo, while they simultaneously dealt the death blow to the New Netscape by moving it off of the domain where it was gaining traffic, and onto a nothing domain, Propeller. Ever since then, I’ve wondered off and on if there was any chance that I could have prevented that mistake if I had remained at AOL. I don’t think so, but it still saddens me that AOL didn’t realize the value it had with the New Netscape that, I believe, would have continued to grow with patience and some investment. However, AOL was too busy looking for the short turn around dollar and too eager to throw so much money at something like Bebo, rather than invest time in something with a growing audience that they already had in the works.

It’s very odd how patient AOL was with killing off Propeller and how impatient AOL was with giving the New Netscape a chance to succeed.

In any case, I feel … odd about the news that Propeller is shutting down October 1st, as does Tom, it would seem.

R.I.P. Propeller. You’ll always be the New Netscape to me.

About C.K. Sample III

I am a father, a husband, a blogger, a parrot owner, a pug owner, and the Chief Product Officer for YouEarnedIt. This site has no comments. If you want to talk to me, send me an @cksample on Twitter. If you like this post, feel free to buy me something off of my wishlist.
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