Internal e-mail problems force changes at AOLTW

When America Online and Time Warner merged last year, one of the things officials agreed to do was use e-mail products available within their own AOL and Netscape Communications Corp. units to serve the new company's approximately 90,000 employees.

Not anymore.

A host of problems caused by the e-mail software brought an about-face from executives within the New York-based company's nine divisions, who this week gave the green light for all nine divisions to scrap what they're using and go with the e-mail software of their choice.

Tricia Primrose, a spokeswoman for AOL Time Warner, said today that the e-mail software used inside the company since the merger was a custom-built application based on Netscape's mail program. It had been redesigned entirely as an in-house companywide product.

Since it was deployed after the merger, however, complaints began rolling in from unhappy users in AOL Time Warner's nine divisions, which include AOL, Warner Bros., Warner Music Group, Home Box Office and Time Warner Books.

"Unfortunately, there were some problems with it," Primrose said. "It didn't exactly meet their needs." Among the problems were difficulties receiving and sending large attachments that held graphics or other data-intensive files.

No decisions have yet been reached on what e-mail programs the divisions will use, Primrose said. Officials in each division will be free to choose from any of the products available, she added.

"It made perfect sense to try to do something for the various divisions" using the applications the merged company already owned, Primrose said. "It didn't work. What we want to do now is ... get the solution that works for them."

Analysts, however, were skeptical about the company's description of the problem, which emerged only after published reports appeared about the e-mail problems.

David Smith, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., questioned the details about the e-mail program the companies used following the merger. "Lots of other [companies] use Netscape mail to provide e-mail very satisfactorily," he said.

Mark Levitt, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., also said that Netscape mail server has been known as a good choice for reliable corporate e-mail. He said he wonders what AOL Time Warner might have done to cause such problems.

"What were they smoking to think that they could get every division user within their company ... to have their needs all met [by a single e-mail application]?" Levitt said. "They probably took a good product and did a poor job implementing it."

When told of those comments, Primrose reiterated her earlier statements. She said the mail program was based on Netscape and said that although Dulles, Va.-based AOL itself uses AOL mail for corporate communications, the company realizes it's not the kind of application companies can use for large graphics or data files.

Matt Pilla, a spokesman for Microsoft Corp., said that New York-based Time Warner used Microsoft's Exchange e-mail program before the merger, according to account representatives.

"We're happy to help AOL Time Warner migrate back to the Microsoft Exchange e-mail solution," Pilla said.

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Todd R. Weiss

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