Will Microsoft Buy AOL?

Time Warner has reportedly been in talks with Microsoft to buy a stake in America Online.

An unconfirmed report in today’s New York Post called the talks “advanced,” and said Microsoft might buy an approximately 50 percent stake in AOL, which would then be combined with its MSN unit. A later report by Reuters said the rumors of such a joint venture were “way overblown.”

Time Warner and Microsoft each declined to confirm the existence of any such talks, but the Post’s sources said a deal could come before the end of the year.

For years, Time Warner has been under pressure from shareholders to do something different with the ISP/portal unit. AOL’s paid subscriber base continues to plummet, from an all-time high of 26.7 million subscribers in 2002 to 21.7 million in March 2005. This summer, AOL began a new initiative to turn AOL.com into a public, ad-supported Web portal. The portal is still in beta stage, so it’s too early to tell if that strategy will pan out.

Shareholders have lost billions since the AOL/Time Warner merger, and the company has paid $510 million to settle SEC and Justice Department probes into how it booked ad deals. The company recently put aside $2 billion for potential shareholder settlements. In recent months, corporate raider Carl Icahn has amassed a stake in Time Warner with the intention of forcing the company into a number of strategy shifts he thinks will restore shareholder value, including increasing the company’s stock buy-back plans and spinning off its cable unit.

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