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Michael Armstrong

is one ecstatic schoolboy.

Oh sure, everyone is expecting him to be mad. All the years he's chased



around with a bouquet of withered dandelions have gone to waste. A tug on AOL's ponytails, tripping her up on the playground -- he gave the Internet starlet every reason to believe that


(T) - Get AT&T Inc. Report

was a manly suitor.

So AT&T denied AOL access to the cable infrastructure? Armstrong was simply giving AOL the Calvin and Susie treatment, giving her an affectionate schoolyard shove. What's a threat to customer-base expansion among grade-school sweethearts? AOL didn't have to get all huffy and tattle to her



Oddly enough, when Armstrong got the call Monday from

Steve Case


Gerald Levin

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-- minutes before his beloved AOL posed locked in a warm embrace with a goofy-toothed

Time Warner


-- he felt uplifted. He was even happy. Forget about punching holes in the walls of his corner office.

AOL saved AT&T's fanny.

Smiling, perfect little AOL is an Internet company that just chose to "go around" with a cable and entertainment company. A cable company? Those geeks?! AT&T's been taking heat all fall for doing the same thing -- joining the ranks of the coaxial cable chess clubbers.

Armstrong got called nasty names when he picked cable's head dork


out of the crowd back in 1998 for $52 billion. Egged on by TCI's infamous founder and still AT&T board member John Malone, Armstrong was willing to take a chance on a less-than-cool best friend to get connected to 18 million homes.

But then when the cool kids caught him hanging out with



after school trading Pokemon cards, he got a Wall Street bruising. He had a nationwide brand to uphold. Why sink all his money and time into an outdated network in need of serious upgrade and repair?

Jerkface, broadband is still a few years away. You'll be "emeritus" by then, man.

Plucky Internet-service-providing rivals converged on Washington to demand entry into AT&T's cable network. AT&T was looking like a jerk, as local governments kicked it in the shins. Someone threw Armstrong's bike in a tree.

He needed to spend time on his homework, not on fighting in the playground. Armstrong was barely passing his universal telephone plan classes. And he was close to an "F" in Internet strategy -- his unoriginal "they'll have to pay my toll" strategy was a clear rip-off of the Baby Bells' defense against long-distance telephone carriers. Administrators slapped him with quiet time after school.

He didn't need this crap.

Armstrong was already poised to kick some Garanimal separates when the stock market pushed AT&T into a fall 1999 face plant. Then former TCI president and AT&T Broadband & Internet Services CEO

Leo Hindery

refused to be his best friend any longer and left to head up

Global Crossing's


GlobalCenter Internet services arm. More cable executive brush-offs ensued.

Our petulant hero needed a break. He prayed for a sign that his ballsy M&A plays hadn't been for naught. He wanted his mommy and needed an uptick.

Out of the blue, AOL walked up and swept away Time Warner. When life was at its darkest, AT&T got a Wall Street reprieve. For the time being, the stock market has bigger Sweet Tarts than AT&T to chew. Can AOL stay Internet-time perky if it's pulling a hefty cable and content sweetheart behind it on a Red Flyer wagon? And how long before another Internet cutie picks one of the remaining independent cable guys to go steady?

AT&T scores on both accounts. If AOL can't keep up with Internet time, all the better for AT&T's aspirations. And if Wall Street learns to respect the talents of cable geeks even more, it'll stop stealing AT&T's lunch money. In the fall of 1999, AT&T sank into the low 40s. By Thursday's close, it had already perked up to 53 3/8.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Mike Armstrong is on top of the world. Its fickle love, AOL, gave it that final satisfaction.

Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She waits breathlessly for your feedback at