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.
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.