Thursday, April 10, 2008

Online Armageddon: Should We Care About the Romancing of Yahoo?

One of the more interesting things about coming back to blogging after a short hiatus is that the Yahoo deal drama has only gotten worse. There's great coverage from many sources, including a good summary of recent analyst takes on, as well as a New York Times story now circulating that News Corp may combine with Microsoft to complete a deal for Yahoo, presumably to combine MySpace's social media strengths with MSN and Yahoo's strengths along with a combined ad network. The counterfoil to this is a possible deal to merge AOL into Yahoo.

Certainly an AOL/Yahoo merger would help Time Warner's plan to get out of the portal business and help Yahoo to grow market share significantly - and certainly working towards one set of user accounts, one messaging network and other combined infrastructure could become very valuable over time. But one wonders how much time and effort would be spent on merging plumbing on these two legacy platforms to get a unified portal business when they could have been focusing on the growth in traffic comes from social media products that operate largely via other platforms.

By contrast the Microsoft/NewsCorp/Yahoo combination may offer a lot more punch for a shareholder's money. Leveraging the power of MySpace, a still-powerful social media platform well-attuned to mass media markets with Yahoo's strength in content aggregation and user accounts and Microsoft's strength in software development, platform strength and ad network brokerage, all in one package, has a lot of interesting parts that could produce more value in the long run. AOL and Yahoo combined, for example, will do little to penetrate mobile markets more effectively. Yahoo, Microsoft and MySpace, by contrast, could make some interesting things happen in mobile between platforms, social media, user accounts and ecommerce.

This is all well and good, but why are we so fixated on this deal, anyway? It's not that it won't create some sea changes over time, but the strengths of a deal with Yahoo come largely from what the partners may offer in combination. Yahoo is big, still powerful - but for the most part in its lifecycle a cash cow with relatively low new product investment waiting to be turned into hamburger. The real issue is what this means in terms of exit plans for online content and technology companies, as pointed out by Fred Wilson over on A VC - that is, if a company with fairly obvious marketable attributes like Yahoo has a hard time cashing in, what does this mean to online plays in general? If there's no exit at the top, what does that say to other players?

Somehow a deal will be forged for Yahoo in the next few months if the company's staff doesn't implode before then from takeover stress. But in the meantime I honestly don't think that it's all that significant a deal to watch from the overall industry's standpoint. Big will get a bit bigger - and that combined entity will still look nothing like Google. I think that we're seeing that overall getting any bigger is not necessarily going to solve anything in online markets. Online publishing is still in its infancy, still requires an enormous amount of investor patience as new ideas face daunting risks and still will have periods of high uncertainty that don't lend themselves to quarterly reports, much less private shareholder reviews. In other words, while some people are still focusing on making larger dinosaurs the long money is still probably in making more and better mammals. Be patient, be foresightful - and don't get too caught up in the scuttlebutt.
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