05 February 2008

Yahoo + Microsoft?

I remember Yahoo! as being one of the first few Web sites I visited when I walked into the library at my high school one day to work on a research assignment. There was only one computer with Internet access (through this big, noisy external 28K modem with little red blinking lights), and Netscape Navigator 3, considered the most advanced Web browser at the time, was my window to the World Wide Web.

Those early days of the Web were simpler times, and Yahoo! was a reflection of that. Its home page had only a few, grainy images, and almost all text was rendered in Times Roman font. It was merely a vast directory of links to Web sites, not a true search engine like what Google presently is. It was simple, yet elegant -- and it was the tool I used to conduct my very first Web-based research.

At the beginning of my first year of university, I was so dissatisfied with the university's email service which was accessible only through a primitive, character-based Lynx browser that I decided to open a Hotmail account (all of my classmates seemed to have a hotmail.com address, so I followed the crowd). Back then, the company behind Hotmail was bought out by Microsoft just a few months earlier, so the original Hotmail UI was still intact. But after Microsoft overhauled the Hotmail interface in their gradual efforts to make it resemble an MS Office application, I bailed out -- and looked again to Yahoo!.

By this point, Yahoo! had grown bigger. Its home page continue to retain the simple yet elegant look, but by then it had various other Web-based services such as online shopping and email. Its email service was appealing, and so I signed up for a yahoo.com email address.

As time progressed, Yahoo! had grown and changed dramatically. Eventually it did away with the spartan, text-oriented home page and it became a graphic-heavy, commercialized, advertising-driven portal, presenting users with links to news, sports, video, autos, finance, travel, relationships, movies, TV shows, celebrities, jobs, classifieds, shopping, games, instant messaging and many, many other services. Its roots as a Web directory is all but forgotten, its link buried somewhere in its massive patchwork of services. Yahoo! went on a shopping spree of its own, buying up companies like GeoCities and eGroups, and assimilated their products into its own growing collection. Meanwhile, Yahoo! Mail has been transformed into a Web 2.0 app, trying desperately hard to appear and act like a desktop application. While its message preview feature is a major benefit for me, its bloated, extraneous features have annoyed me so much that I have since defected to Gmail -- although I still use my Yahoo! email account for personal messages (I have recently switched back to Yahoo! Mail Classic because the new Yahoo! Mail won't work on Firefox 3.0 beta 2). And Yahoo! Briefcase, the only other Yahoo! service that I use occasionally, has remained fairly static in this sea of change -- probably because it's been neglected while the company focuses on its other, more profitable, online offerings.

Despite weathering the dot com bust, Yahoo! has recently fallen into hard times. Even with Jerry Yang, its co-founder, at the helm again, Yahoo! has been performing poorly in the eyes of investors and mass layoffs are imminent. Its weakened state has now left it vulnerable to a takeover bid by Microsoft, which it has been eyeing for some time in its ongoing battle to outdo Google for Internet dominance.

It's inevitable that a Microsoft takeover of Yahoo! will succeed, one way or another -- because in the end, its shareholders are only interested in making a profit, and Yahoo! executives and employees with stock options would be eager to cash in and make a few quick bucks... indeed, both are strong incentives to see the deal go through. That leaves the question of what to do with all that overlap between MSN and Yahoo!. But as far as Microsoft is concerned, it could care less about Yahoo! Mail, Briefcase or all of those other services, because its only interest is in Yahoo!'s search engine and advertising businesses.

I view this prospect with some degree of sadness. As one of the early members of the Internet generation, I practically grew up on Yahoo!, and it would be shame to see it disappear into Internet history along with other relics like Netscape. But the stark reality is that many are seeing these events as a golden opportunity to profit from the misfortune of others.

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