OK, this isn’t the post I meant to write, but the (pseudo-)developments are simply happening too fast to catch one’s breath.

Today, Microsoft apparently walked away from a Yahoo deal more thoroughly than they previously had, which in itself makes little sense and proves how much Ballmer and Co. have kept themselves in suspended animation during this ongoing saga.

Now, as far as Yahoo was concerned, we knew that they wouldn’t get a lot done given the continued wheeling and dealing by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. Despite Jerry Yang’s pleading with the troops to keep their noses to the grindstone, there is simply no way that Yahoo has not been deeply affected:

I was at Sprint in a former life at the time when the proposed merger with WorldCom was going on, which ultimately, and it turns out mercifully, was blocked by the DOJ. And I can tell you from that experience that very little of substance beyond basic maintenance mode happened inside Sprint for well over 6 months.

All eyes, minds, and water-cooler conversations were cued on the proposed deal and its ramifications. And that was under relatively amicable circumstances mind you.

So, with the pronouncements by MSFT today, Yahoo’s stock taking a big hit, and Yahoo in turn announcing that a deal to outsource search ad serves to Google may be happening as soon as today, someone might be tempted to say: The nightmare is over.

Or Is It?

Despite all of the "titillation", the Icahn back-and-forths, the rumor, the innuendo, and the inflated/bruised egos, let’s take a step back and look at the fundamentals of this:

MSFT + Yahoo = Still Can’t Compete

As Henry Blodget of the Alley Insider has previously argued (and I agree with him on this), the Micro-hoo deal as originally proposed does preciously little to make the combined entity more competitive against Google. MSFT has amply proven as much recently by having to resort to touting their "Live Search Cashback" gimmick as a "game changer." NOT a good sign. (I was in the middle of putting the LSCB discussion into this post but will save it for later).

You see, entrepreneurship is fundamentally concerned with arbitrage, that is, putting resources towards their highest and best uses. And combining MSFT’s money and inferior technology together with Yahoo’s inferior technology and user eyeballs does NOT a winning combination make. Period.

If you combine money with eye-balls, what have you got? A waste of $ and a combinatory nightmare.

I previously said that

joining the two juggernauts into one operation is the equivalent of having two huge battleships collide at about a 45 degree angle and hoping that somehow during the collision they will weld themselves into one aircraft carrier. Ain’t… gonna… happen.

And MSFT has proven with each of its Internet moves in 12 long years that it is very adept at actually driving AWAY eyeballs despite all of its supposed and real advantages (its installed browser base, money, influence, etc.).

Part of this is their extreme misunderstanding of branding and the resulting branding mess that I have been reporting on here several times already, and their failure to understand the internet at a fundamental level.

So if Yahoo moves to outsource the ad serves for its search to Google, in entrepreneurial terms, they are doing the right thing. Take the money now and gear up to fight another day on NEW battle-fields where it can actually WIN.

Remember that Google’s monetization advantage is somewhere between 50-100%. Now that is a combination that actually makes economic sense: Leading eyeballs to instantly higher monetization, something that Micro-hoo might well have never achieved.

While it is true that Yahoo shouldn’t completely get out of the search game, instead of playing also-ran, they need to innovate on a massive scale. Keep the R&D going in the background, and use the newfound money to do something worthwhile.

Which is by the way what MSFT should be doing rather than continue to try to throw its weight around. It hasn’t worked on the internet in 12 years. In this context it is ironic that MSFT might now be trying to push for regulatory protection against a Goo-hoo outsourcing deal. THE monopolist of the late 20th/early 21st century crying foul… that would be so rich…

Even more ironically, if MSFT hadn’t been able to stop the DOJ proceedings against it through the arrival of the Bush admininistration, and had been broken up into say three smaller, more nimble, more hungry units, both those resulting companies and all the rest of us might well be better off today:

Vista might have been less of a failure, the Office company might have actually innovated in the "productivity" space, and the Internet division would have been free to "get" the internet unencumbered by other interests.

Back to the Goo-hoo outsourcing deal

Critics of this scheme are right that this can only be seen as a short-term fix to boost Yahoo revenues. If it’s not accompanied by very serious efforts to innovate and therefore outflank Google or create new markets that Yahoo can take a leadership position in, then it does hurt them in the long term. Their capabilities would definitely erode.

This was described in some detail by Mahaney in the TechCrunch interview, where he recounted the developments at AOL. (The full text of the interview is really a must-read for anyone interested in this entire situation.) But of course it would be up to Yahoo with how they spend that money.

If they invest it in serious innovation instead of mee-too projects, they might have a shot. As it stands now, there is very little in terms of core competencies that they have really kept even or led on.

Whatever they have going for them up to now is largely a hold-over from its successes during the Web 1.0 phase. That is predominantly the user eye-balls, people who became accustomed to using Yahoo services circa 1996-2000. They have since bungled almost everything else they touched, from search ads (where they should have led with Overture), to the rise of social networking and web video (where they largely missed the boat).

So again the critics are partially right in that Yahoo’s search share will likely keep declining over time (not rapidly though), simply because they will fall further behind in search development as well. UNLESS they make a very serious effort to come up with a next generation of search that somehow bypasses what Google is currently doing. Otherwise, they would of course be more and more dependent.

Of course, it’s Google that is hard at work figuring out the next steps in search… while MSFT and Yahoo just wasted another 4+ months on this diversion. And who knows, maybe Ballmer or Icahn will do it all over again in a few months.

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