What Yahoo needs now is an innovator

Carol Bartz
Carol Bartz: fired by phone

Yahoo fired its boss yesterday- and it did it by phone: as Tapbot developer Paul Haddad quipped, "they were going to use Yahoo! Messenger but couldn't find anyone with it installed." Carol Bartz was hired to sort out Yahoo, but it seems the job was too big for her.

That's not a surprise. "Let's fix Yahoo!" is a challenge akin to making the Dundee accent sexy or persuading people that merchant bankers are good guys. It's tough enough at the best of times, and tougher still if you bring in the wrong person.

The problem's much bigger than having the wrong boss, though. It's that Yahoo doesn't appear to know what the hell it's doing.

The vision thing

Yahoo is trying to be two kinds of company: a technology firm and a media firm. Sadly it isn't being too successful with either role.

It's let services such as Delicious and Flickr wither, shuttered stacks of online products - from Geocities to HotJobs.com - it's conceded the search market to Google and it's lost the social networking market to Facebook.

In media, its share of the display ad market is in decline, partly due to competition from - you've guessed it - Google and Facebook. That's the same Google and Facebook Yahoo tried to buy in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

Yahoo's quite keen on buying things - over the years it's acquired some 62 companies - and its latest target is video service Hulu. However, reports suggest that Yahoo's up against big hitters including Amazon, Microsoft and Google, with Amazon believed to be the front runner.

Yahoo itself could become a takeover target - assuming, that is, somebody actually wants to buy it. The New York Times reports that even in its current state acquiring Yahoo isn't going to leave much change from $14 billion, and it'd be a risky purchase: the NYT quotes one analyst note that describes Yahoo as "a deteriorating asset". It's Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, claiming that "I *am* big. It's the internet that got small."

Yahoo's problem is that it lacks the vision thing, the clear-eyed focus that drives innovation and can disrupt industries. There's a telling bit on MSN Money: "In a statement, chairman Roy Bostock said the [Yahoo] board intends to 'return the company to a path of robust growth and industry-leading innovation.' But specific plans were not included in the statement."

In Bartz, Yahoo hired a competent CEO - but what it really needs is an innovator, someone who'll slaughter a few sacred cows and focus on the future, not the past. Unfortunately, Steve Jobs is otherwise engaged.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.