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In the nearly 30 years that followed, Levin rose to become one of the most powerful men in media, just as Case has rocketed to a similar throne in cyberspace. Their union last week was cemented by a number trailed by so many zeros that it was easy to miss the fact that more than anything, this was a marriage of two protogeeks. Case, who began his romance with computers by building his own Kaypro PC, and Levin, whose love of media began when he was tucked in bed as a child, snug as a bug, he recalls, listening to the Lux Radio Theater as he fell asleep.
Some looked at the two men onstage at their New York City press conference and concluded that this was a collision: the 60-year-old, scholarly and reserved titan with the 41-year-old embodiment of everything Net. But though they have different manners and tastes (Levin loves Camus's The Stranger; Case, Toffler's Third Wave), there is a marked similarity. Levin helped create the American cable industry, Case the nation's mass online connection. Each has survived failure. Last week their story looked new, but each man will tell you it's also as old as the history of technology. Geek meets geek. Geeks fall in love. Geeks get married. At AOL's headquarters in Dulles, Va., and at Time Warner's in Manhattan, there was hope that these nerd nuptials might join the ranks of other great pocket-protector romances: Hewlett and Packard, Allen and Gates. But there was also a worry that these two might somehow turn their partnership into a knife fight. "This is," both men kept insisting last week, "a merger of equals." People thought they were talking about their companies. They were talking about each other--for better or worse.
What perhaps astonished people most about last week's deal was that AOL could be buying Time Warner. But that is the nature of the Internet economy, making the impossible (or even the implausible) possible. The speed of the Net has served to condense into Case's short business life--he founded AOL 15 years ago--several lifetimes' worth of hardscrabble learning. AOL has had plenty of near death experiences--the launch of Microsoft's online service in 1995, the day AOL's entire service blipped off-line in 1996, the easily won reputation as America On Hold after the service opened itself up to unlimited usage. You might argue that Case was in a no-lose situation, riding the biggest boom in the history of booms. But the hollow shells of other consumer online services--eWorld, Delphi, GEnie--are a reminder that this business is as lethal as they come.
Case has been selling almost since he left the crib. He was the middle of three boys who tagged behind an older sister and shared a passion for starting businesses, even going so far as to call their bedrooms "offices." (You can imagine the formative entrepreneurial scolding at the Case house: "Steve, go to your office!") Case's father was a Hawaii power-lawyer; his mom taught at the school her kids attended. Case's older brother Dan was always regarded as the family comet: Princeton, Rhodes scholarship, prestigious investment bank.