AOL Discarding Opportunities for Web Relevance

As AOL (s TWX) lays off a third of its work force as it prepares to go independent, it’s looking to drop its ICQ and MapQuest units, according to reports by Kara Swisher. But with the deluge of information hitting web users these days, location and presence are two of the most promising ways to parse the online world (GigaOM Pro sub. required). They’re also two of the most innovation-rich veins of the last year, with projectile growth of mobile location apps and the ongoing real-time status arms race. While AOL is busy revising itself to be about content and advertising, both of those areas of focus benefit greatly from context and relevance.

ICQ was long ago eclipsed by other instant-messaging services (AOL’s AIM among them) and the last person to prefer MapQuest over the competition was probably Andy Samberg in “Lazy Sunday,” but those services are hardly tiny. MapQuest alone accounted for more than 40 percent of AOL’s U.S. search queries in October. ICQ reportedly has 40 million to 50 million unique monthly visitors and still leads the market in countries like Germany, Russia, Ukraine and Israel.
Given the overlap, it’s understandable that AOL no longer needs ICQ as much as it once did, but a sale of MapQuest is pretty strange — though AOL might be able to get a decent price for the unit out of Apple (s AAPL), which clearly would be happy to wean its mobile self off of Google (s GOOG) and its Maps.
AOL paid $287 million plus earnouts for ICQ in 1998 and $1.1 billion for MapQuest in 1999. The soon-to-be-spinoff itself is also possibly thinking about getting rid of recent acquisition Bebo, cause, you know, social networking’s another boring sector these days.