07 Feb 2008

Microsoft Acquiring Yahoo

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I am finally getting around to linking a witty and highly perceptive article by Michael S. Malone, author of ABC News’ Silicon Insider column, writing in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, which I’ve been wanting to recommend to friends.

If you look at Microsoft with an objective eye, it becomes apparent that it is a giant company past its prime. It is big and rich, but increasingly toothless. It is able to use its money to put on a great show at the Consumer Electronics Show, underwrite an interesting market initiative — or buy another big company — but it no longer has the fire of ambition or the addiction to risk to ruthlessly execute on those desires any more. As has been noted before, once you look past all of the high profile moves (such as MSN, MSNBC, Zune and XBox), Microsoft has only really been as successful as it reputation would suggest in just two businesses: Windows and Office. Most everything else is flash.

Even Microsoft’s full-out assault on Netscape (which, ironically, will officially die on March 1) for control of the Internet browser industry — justly earning it the sobriquet “Evil Empire” — in retrospect was less a brilliant maneuver by Gates & Co. to capture a hot new industry and more a desperate (and questionable) scramble by a market leader caught napping.

That corporate somnolence, rather than its more-remembered ruthlessness, has far better characterized Microsoft over the past decade. Even the Vista operating system, the most recent upgrade of Microsoft’s core product line, managed to be so late that it almost crippled the personal computer industry. It finally arrived to a chorus of boos, most of them undeserved (it’s a pretty good operating system), but some dead-on (it’s a technological hop when it should have been a leap). Microsoft lost its killer instinct a long time ago. On the rare occasions when the mood resurfaces, the company doesn’t have the chops anymore to execute on its desires.

And that brings us to the Microsoft-Yahoo deal. For all of the excitement, this is just big, rich, but slow-moving giant looking to buy another slow-moving giant, the latter having stuck to an obsolete business plan too long and lost its way. The scheme is less predation than it is desperation: In the world of search, Google owns these two lumbering monsters.

Microsoft understandably covets the sheer size of Yahoo’s subscriber rolls, believing it can accomplish what Yahoo has failed to do: convert more of those 130 million monthly visitors into real, paying customers. But Microsoft has hardly shown it can do that at MSN. So, can it really find a solution to Yahoo’s structural problems?

That remains to be seen — and Microsoft’s one genius is as a late adopter. The real problem Yahoo — and perhaps soon Microsoft — faces is that those legions of Yahoo users don’t want to be stuck inside a small corner of the Web, not getting all of the experiences and services (like live TV and first-run movies) they were promised. Especially not when they can run around and find all of those things, in abundance, elsewhere on the Web. Microsoft is even less prepared to solve that problem than Yahoo.

That leaves search, which is probably the real reason Microsoft wants Yahoo. Combining the two search engines would, in terms of sheer numbers, represent the biggest challenge to Google to date. But the sum of two also-rans is almost never a winner — unless the newly merged is very, very lucky in its competitors. That’s what happened with HP and Compaq: Who’d have guessed that Dell would suddenly fall on its face?

Incredibly, the same may happen with a Microsoft-Yahoo deal if it happens. If you look at the stock market, peruse the industry gossip blogs, follow the departure of key employees, or read about the various new initiatives (energy?) the company is pursuing, it becomes increasingly apparent that Google is a company about to have an early midlife crisis. Microsoft-Yahoo may turn out to be a pedestrian idea with absolutely brilliant timing.

If that is the case, and the merger proves successful, it will have more to do with Google than Microsoft and Yahoo. Which is why the feds should stay out of it.

So, Yahoo: Take the deal (unless a better one comes along). Microsoft: Let this be the first of many high-risk moves. Treat Yahoo as a heart transplant, not a skin graft. And Google: This new competition should be a warning to stop fooling around and get back to business.

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