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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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Last Few Signals…

By - June 30, 2010

….for those of you reading Searchblog in RSS and not watching ze Tweets….here are the Signals that I do over at FM’s site.

Weds. Signal: It’s a Good Day to Read The News

Tuesday Signal: Location, Location, Location

Monday Signal: Welcome to Summer, Now Get to Work

You can sign up to get the Signal email, a daily roundup of what I’m reading and why, on the main page of Signal here (box in the right hand corner).  

Will Google Compete With Facebook? Er…It Already Is, Folks.

By - June 29, 2010

Screen shot 2010-06-29 at 10.20.21 AM.png

Last weekend the news was conjecture about Facebook doing web search, today, the news is conjecture about Google doing social networks. All of this has been sparked by two well known Valley guys opining on samesaid…Kevin Rose, CEO of Digg, tweeted that Google was working on a “Google Me” social network (he since was “asked to take down his tweet” by someone…) and then a former Facebook employee answered a related question on his own Q&A service, Quora.   

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, folks. I certainly don’t find it the least bit surprising that Google is continuing its push into social – let’s not forget, the company recently launched Buzz, which qualifies as a major social network, already owns Orkut, which also qualifies, and has added social features to its core search service – including Google Profiles and social search functionalities.

Pulling these together into a seamless, useful, and coordinated product just makes sense. It’s to be expected. And it’s badly needed, because none of these disparate features or products have found their own footing.

The real question is whether Google has the corporate will to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge publicly that it’s game on with Facebook. Often companies attempt to pretend they’re not really in a competitor’s business. It’s rather hard to defend such a position now. I say, go for it, Google. If the product is good, the traction will be there.

Google Takes One More Step Away From China

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Google today announced another step in its protracted divorce from China – to satisfy regulatory and license requirements, it’s no longer directly serving results from its Hong Kong based (and uncensored) engine onto its Google.cn site. Instead, it’s directing users to the Hong Kong site, in essence, creating one more click for users to go through before accessing its service.

And there’s no certainty that service will be allowed inside China, as the regime is clearly not pleased with Google’s failure to roll over. Google’s license to do business inside the country apparently expires tomorrow. This move was clearly intended to convince China that Google is living by the letter of Chinese law. I’m not sure that matters, and it may effect Google’s other businesses – Maps, for example.

Meanwhile, Google’s main competition, Baidu, which as a homegrown company has no such issues, has gained marketshare at Google’s expense. CEO Robin Li will be at Web 2 this Fall, a rare appearance and one certain to be newsworthy.

Here’s Google’s blog post.

Google Has to Fix The App Store

By - June 28, 2010

I’m not an Android user, yet (working on that), but if this piece is even halfway true, Google needs to respond, quickly, with a plan to fix the Android app store.

I’ve heard over and over that Android’s user experience, when it comes to apps, is terrible, and it’s a major reason why folks love Apple. Signal over noise.

Noise and dirt are essential to the web, but there’s no reason why they have to overrun it. Curation is a media skill, an editorial skill. Not what Google’s good at. Maybe it needs to outsource it to folks who are good at it (ahem). In any case, it remains a major failing point in the Android competitive ecosystem. Take the good lessons from Apple’s app store, and exploit the weaknesses. There are many on both sides.

Is Apple's iWorld "The Web"?

By - June 27, 2010

I spent a fair portion of today at the O’Reilly Foo Camp, as eclectic an assortment of smart folks as you’re likely to find anywhere. I wrote perhaps the first ever piece on Foo back in late 2003, and I’ve been trying to make it every year since. It’s quite a confab.

Today I asked a number of the folks I ran into the same question: “Is Apple a part of the Web?” The answers I got were nearly unanimous – no, Apple’s iWorld is not part of the Web. Apple’s approach to the world – one of control, limited APIs, top-down control, the utter lack of…dirt…well, that’s not the web. One researcher working on a large scale Web problem dismissed Apple to me in this way: “Oh yeah, Steve’s managed to repackage pieces of the Web and resell them to people, good for him. But that’s not the real Web, so who cares?”

Does Apple represent the same kind of threat to the Web that the Web itself represented to the PC/Windows hegemony ten years ago?

I went to Foo with my son, a fellow who is not averse to running a Tor relay (even as he’s not entirely sure what the heck running that relay really means. Regardless, he met a Tor employee at Foo and was deeply impressed). As we drove home this afternoon, listening the Giants fall yet again to the Boston Red Sox, he asked me this question: “Why does Apple try to control everything?”

“Well,” I responded, “Apple believes that to create the best user experience, it needs to control that experience, at least in terms of what developers can create inside Apple’s environments.”

“That’s stupid,” my son responded.

“I’m not sure,” I said, even as I admitted that in my recent musings, I’ve been pretty partisan on the topic. “It’s true that Apple makes some incredible experiences, right?” After all, my son was pretty much addicted to his iPod Touch, and I knew he was at his wit’s end trying to install Windows 7 on his two year old Dell.

“Yeah, but it took them three years to let people change their background on the iPhone,” he countered. “That’s just lame.”

“Well, you jailbroke your iPod as soon as you could…”

“Yeah!”

“…and as much as I’d like to believe that the entire universe of computing device users were 14-year-old boys, the fact is, most folks don’t want to think about jailbreaking their devices. They just want them to do whatever it is they think they are supposed to do, and if they surprise and delight them in the process (as Apple devices do), so much the better.”

My son thought about that for a tic, then said. “It’s still lame.”

Then he fell asleep, and I listened to my Giants continue their pursuit of a losing cause.

But the question stayed with me – What is the essence of “the Web,” or “The Internet”? Does Apple’s approach to the world we’ve built together over these past 15 years qualify as part of the Web? I’ve argued in the past that it does not. But perhaps I’m being too dismissive. Perhaps, after 15 years of noise, and dirt, and half steps, perhaps we all really want the Web packaged and delivered to us in neat Apps, ready for consumption.

But what do we lose when that becomes our framework for consumption of “the Web”? And what do we gain?

I think this is an important question. Clearly Google falls on one side of this question, and Apple on another. It’s easy to claim that in the end, Apple will repeat its precious history, and end up with a small percentage of the market (Mac vs. Windows, all over again).

But then again….

What do you think? Is Apple’s AppWorld part of the Internet as you understand it? And who would you like to see onstage at Web 2 debating this question?

A Slow Week Or So

By - June 14, 2010

I’ll be traveling this next ten or so days, both for work and vacation, and not posting much here. However, I want readers to know I’ve read all the comments on my last Apple post, and plan a pretty detailed response once I come back. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in these pages soon.

It's Official – Apple Kicking Google Out of iWorld

By - June 09, 2010

I’cover5_06.gifve written extensively about iAds here and here, and one question I raised has to do with Apple’s policies with regard to third party data and ad networks, in particular AdMob.

As All Things Digital notes today, Apple this week “clarified” its policy with regard to third party networks, and it’s hard to read it as anything other than a direct declaration of war with Google. In short, third party ad networks can run in AppWorld, but only if they are “independent”. Put another way, sorry AdMob, you’re not welcome here. (I interviewed AdMob CEO at the CM Summit Monday, and asked him about this. This was before the policy was clarified, but he seemed pretty certain Apple would do this.)

I think this is shortsighted and wrong. I also think it’s classic Apple. It’s a re run of the Us vs. The World mentality that forced the Mac into a corner back in the late 1980s. This time, Google plays the role of Microsoft, but it really doesn’t matter. Apple won’t let anyone play in their iWorld who might pose a competitive threat.

This is all we need now – a major platform war, with marketers and developers having to pick sides, cost of development, ad serving, analytics, and marketing services at least tripled (one process for Android, one for iPhone/Pad/Touch, one for Microsoft or Palm/HP or…. ). That’s not what the web is about. It’s disheartening.

AdMob’s response is here. From it: “This change threatens to decrease – or even eliminate – revenue that helps to support tens of thousands of developers. The terms hurt both large and small developers by severely limiting their choice of how best to make money. And because advertising funds a huge number of free and low cost apps, these terms are bad for consumers as well.

Let’s be clear. This change is not in the best interests of users or developers. In the history of technology and innovation, it’s clear that competition delivers the best outcome. Artificial barriers to competition hurt users and developers and, in the long run, stall technological progress.”

What do you think?