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Is Yahoo Dead? I Don't Think So. Who Else With This Scale Can Be Neutral?

By - July 07, 2010

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but there’s a major battle underway for the hearts and minds of what we, in this industry, broadly call “developers.” Often the term is used quite strictly, to mean actual coders who build actual software-driven applications, services, or websites. Other times the term is more loosely applied, meaning “companies that build stuff” or “partners of platform X or service Y.”

However you define them, every major player on the Internet – and that includes predominately mobile players – wants developers to create value on their platform. All the top players here in the US – Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft – are driven by the value created by their developer base. The same is (or will be) true for Nokia internationally, and HP with its Palm acquisition.

At the moment, it seems to me, the game is utterly open.

Now, those of you who are Apple evangelists may disagree with that statement, but then again, I pretty much expect that. For the rest of you, a few thoughts on what it means to be a “developer,” at this moment, and why I believe there’s an opening for one unexpected company – Yahoo – to potentially emerge as a winner here.

Yeah, I said Yahoo. goofy-yahoo-logo.gif

Why? Well, I can’t speak to whether or not the company has the right lineup of talent, either management or engineers. Nor can I claim to have any inside knowledge of its core strategy, other than that which I have been told by folks I’ve recently met with there. But after those meetings, I did come away with a sense that Yahoo has a chance to be something none of the other major companies on the web can be: Truly neutral. Coupled with a very large audience base and a brand folks generally want to trust, there’s most certainly a there there.

Stay with me for a bit (as I’m pretty much thinking out loud here, and I’m not entirely sure where this is going to go.)

Last week I met with Blake Irving, Yahoo’s new EVP and Chief Product Officer, as well as Cody Simms, Yahoo’s Senior Director of Product Management (he also is responsible for developer relations). We had a pretty wide ranging and wide open conversation about the company, including a very frank discussion about its loss of luster over the past few years.

But these guys are not dumb, and as Blake pointed out in his blog post explaining why he came out of retirement (he was at Microsoft for 15 years) to run product at Yahoo, the company has a very large base of engaged users and some serious infrastructure and services in its arsenal. The question is, how do you continue to engage those users with great services in a world where nearly everyone else is looking to steal them away?

Something Blake explained to me, which echoed a meeting I had a year ago with CEO Carol Bartz, made a light bulb go off in my head. Last year Bartz vented to me about Yahoo’s infrastructure problems – the company, she explained, was a compilation of fundamentally disconnected vertical silos, each with its own P&L, codebase, infrastructure, and culture. It was nearly impossible to roll out products that cut across, say, Mail, Homepage, Finance, IM, Search, and Flickr, because each instance required custom integration and coding. Yahoo was literally broken underneath, even as it looked consistent at the UI layer. Add in the issues of internationalization, and you went from nearly impossible to “not even worth considering.” That mean stagnation, and on more than one axis. For one, it means it’s very hard to find leverage between your internal resources, or to roll out new products that build on more than one stack. For another, it means it’s next to impossible to open your company’s resources up to third party developers (there’s that word) who might want to add value to the ecosystem you’ve created.

I noted Bartz’s exasperation but didn’t think that much of it. At that time, she had a lot bigger issues to deal with – the Microsoft deal, for one, investor rancor, for another, and a major talent drain, for a third. She ended up getting sick, and not participating in last year’s Web 2. (She’s back this year, however…)

Then I met with Blake and Cody, and as the discussion progressed, Blake in particular brought up infrastructure again and again. He was thrilled, he told me, with what Yahoo had done over the past year to integrate most of its core services on one massive Hadoop instance. For the first time, Yahoo could roll new products across a shared infrastructure. It’s a major milestone in the company’s history.

Now, I haven’t vetted whether Blake’s enthusiasm is more hope than reality, nor have I (or can I) compare Yahoo’s infrastructure to, say, that of Google or Microsoft. But a few points of fact: One, before he left, Blake ran Microsoft’s initial foray into cloud infrastructure – the Live project. He understands the importance of those platforms.

So here is Yahoo’s challenge: To be the company developers want to plug into. And how does Yahoo lure them? By delivering engaged audiences, a clear economic proposition, and a neutral point of view.

That neutrality is key. I’ll explore that concept (along with others) in the next post. It’s late, and I’ve got a lot of clients to see in the morning. Let me know what you think so far, and I’ll be back at it as soon as I can.


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17 thoughts on “Is Yahoo Dead? I Don't Think So. Who Else With This Scale Can Be Neutral?

  1. Google is focused on the open models and is way ahead in terms of the scale. The race for the Platform will be won by the company who best executes the “semantic” strategy, which is much more evident with Google and Facebook. If Yahoo is to win the race, it’s more likely to be as the member of the alliance forming around Facebook.

  2. bob says:

    Even if most of its core services are on hadoop, which I believe knowing something about yahoo is a spectacular exagerration, thats not really the infrastructure problem, their infrastructure problem is organizational.

    If you had an organization that was competent to deliver integrated services, it wouldnt matter too much what the backend is, it would matter that you were setup to manage it.

    Yahoo may have these issues, but when you look at the individual properties and see the stagnation, its hard to see that as a cross product issue rather than just see that the products themselves are not very good and not compelling enough to get much penetration beyond homepage. And thats the real problem.

    Noone has to steal anything from Yahoo, they are giving it away.

  3. I just saw post in the Yahoo Maps API forum, that leads me to believe that the api had a significant bug for 6 days, before anyone noticed. This could not have happened in some more popular part of their offering like flickr. To see that on maps, certainly don’t lured me away from using Google Maps, though. Here is the link to the forum http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/yws-maps/message/7230

  4. F.D Athow says:

    Yahoo has been very active on a number of segments. You mentioned hadoop in your post. I’d like to get your thoughts about the Associated Content acquisition which positions it as a competitor to AOL’s seed.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    I think Yahoo’s gone, irrespective of the development community.

    There’s a huge disconnect between management and Yahoo’s end users.

    Despite their $100 million marketing campaign stating that the internet “is under new management, yours,” this is very much not true. They have no respect for user data. I’ve watched account after account, group after group, completely destroyed and nuked on Flickr without any recourse or opportunity for individuals to take self corrective action. Without even warning. People’s (stupidly of course) only copies of very precious photos irrevocably destroyed.

    Institutionally they censor heavily in places like Germany, India, etc. creating more ill will.

    This is in contrast to a far more open less censored web with Google.

    Yahoo generates enormous distrust and ill will amongst users from these sort of heavy handed anti-user tactics and they have no interest in addressing the situations or establishing a more respectful valid relationship with the people that use the service.

    Overall consumer opinion on Yahoo is quite low and management has zero interest in turning that around despite wasting millions of shareholder dollars on empty, hollow advertising campaigns.

  6. Sandy Ward says:

    Yahoo! has an amazing amount of potential. This is said as a former engineering manager…and I could have said that three years ago when I left.

    Your statment:

    “To be the company developers want to plug into. And how does Yahoo lure them?
    By delivering engaged audiences, a clear economic proposition, and a neutral point of view.”

    couldn’t be more true. Developers love netrual parties that are pushing their own agenda.

    But Y! could also REALLY benefit from some outreach.

    I led Yahoo! Canada’s ‘Developer Relations program’ (it was informal but funded) and in the course of one year we saw a steady increase in new companies using YUI, Y! Maps, etc.

    The main reason, outside of the US many companies don’t actively engage the developer community (MSFT and David Crow are stepping it up in Canada now).

    If Y! reached out to developers in the countries where they are present they could see big changes in 6-9 months.

    I wish Blake Irving & Cody Simms all the best.

    Go Yahoo! Go!

  7. Scott Rafer says:

    YUI and YQL always get ignored in these discussions, but they are probably what’s used most/liked best by developers in the more orthodox sense. Knowing those user bases/traffic would be a key indicator.

  8. David Lopez says:

    I’m glad to hear Yahoo is working behind the scenes to enable itself to quickly roll out implementations to their platform without dealing with segregation. I for one would love to see them gain more market share and not fade away in the future.

  9. Aidan Beanland says:

    Don’t forget that Yahoo!’s outlasted almost every competitor and is still one of the top online destinations.

    Yeah it’s easy to pick on specific areas that need improving or jump on whatever new bandwagon passes by, the fact is there’s a lot of passion and excitement in the company that’s felt by millions of worldwide users.

    Keep an eye on http://developer.yahoo.com/ and don’t forget new initiatives such as http://styleguide.yahoo.com/

  10. Bob says:

    It is kind of hard to keep with anyone who says Yahoo could be the winner here? The empirical science on Yahoo is pretty bad.

  11. Cedric Dugas says:

    I think Yahoo deliver a lot of great tools for web developers, and with there forums in the dev network you can get help to get those tools integrated in your apps,

    That’s already a lot, that being said, I think yahoo will need to go even further in developing new product if it want to stay relevant.

    Yahoo connected TV is a good example, when it first came out it was a revolution, there was nothing like it. But, it, very unfortunately, got too mucj problems. The product is sluggish on some TV’s, the approval process is too long, the framework is somewhat limited and buggy and only run on linux.

    Major problems, with android coming to TV, this platform will die instantly, which is a shame.

  12. Hannes says:

    the position of yahoo is pretty unique – as it was a former “superpower” but is not gone by now… if you compare it to google its much more polarized – imho

  13. When people are used to being treated like a king in their jobs as you are, they can become cold and bored and take for granted all of the things a company does to help you thrive. Coming from a call center environment where I was treated like a meat puppet, I would like to share my perspective: Working at Yahoo! has been the most fulfilling work experience of my life. No one ever had a harsh word for me and everyone supported everyone daily. I always got the feeling that we were building something together rather than competing for money. To me, Yahoo! is like a big family where people come and go but always keep in touch and always care for each other. I’ve never seen so many honest smiles in one place. There’s no word for the feeling you get when you feel you can trust everyone you work with because it usually doesn’t happen.

  14. Yahwho?

    Wake me when they bring in a CEO with more vision than “where can we cut services next”.

  15. Randy Giusto says:

    Almost every major corporation has had to reinvent itself after loosing it’s way- IBM, HP, Apple, although most Web brands haven’t been around long enough to see an evolutionary period, because the pace within the Web community as compared to the enterprise or consumer electronics worlds.

    Yahoo! Has had it’s share of problems for years, but it’s not an AOL. And it’s not a MySpace either. There won’t be one winner. A thriving developer community depends upon several platforms to thrive, not just one. Google and Apple are polar opposites as far as openness, control, and financial models. But developers write for three screens- the Web, mobile, and soon TV (whether in closed environments like widgets or emerging open frameworks).

    Blake and Cody come at a time when Yahoo! Needed to be turned around. I’ve had years of experience working in a growing decentralized organization that increasingly became “tangled in its own underwear.” it led to catharsis. But Yahoo! Is already jettisoning old baggage and blowing up silos. That doesn’t happen in a year though. It still has a long road to hoe but developers don’t stay on one platform forever.

    Oh, and you didn’t mention Adobe and all the Flash developers out there. While Adobe may struggle with mobile they still have a deep legacy online, and like Yahoo! Have to reinvent themselves.

    Neutral or not Yahoo! Still has a chance. To dismiss them shows a lack of developer community understanding. But Yahoo will need to improve its developer program initiatives, just like Nokia, as the Web and mobile collide.

  16. Yahoo-Lover says:

    I agree completely with you Yahoo has a very large user base but the problem is their is hardly any innovation Yahoo has brought in recent years. I’ve worked with Cody, who has good communication skills but lacks any original ideas- he is a complete follower. He was spreading the effort to see if Yahoo can follow Facebook with FB Connect like strategy and other similar copy cat ideas. Yahoo needs new ideas not copy other’s because at the end of the day Y! is not good at execution – it takes even good communicator and follower like Cody six to twelve to convince Y! execs. Good luck Yahoo!

  17. Bill Mount says:

    Yahoo needs to stop craping on people who depend on yahoo for primary email.