Fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, I received a nice e-mail from a onetime graduate
student in electrical engineering at Stanford University. David Filo was thanking me
for the kind words I'd expressed about the search engine he and partner Jerry Yang
had created, called Yahoo.
I no longer have that e-mail, and, soon, Yahoo will no longer have its full
independence, search engine-wise, should last week's deal with Microsoft Corp.
come to pass. Microsoft will get access to key Yahoo technologies and the
Redmond-based firm's relatively new Bing search engine will power Yahoo's
portal. Equally important, perhaps, Yahoo's sales team will market online ads for
Microsoft's sites, giving the firm more muscle against Google, which dominates
that market segment.
The deal, which reportedly is worth a few hundred million dollars a year to Yahoo,
and perhaps as much or more to Microsoft if ad sales go well, marks the end of an
era. When Yahoo was king, Web browsers such as Netscape were sold for a $50 list
price in Border's Books & Music stores, in boxes. Now, you can find a browser free
of charge for the downloading.
What happened? There's many explanations, but one popular theory was that Netscape
saw itself as a seller of software, rather than as a company offering a "portal"
to the Internet. Had Netscape taken the latter course, it might have had the
commanding position Google holds in the marketplace today, and that Yahoo once held.
But portals are now almost as common as hot dogs at a baseball game: tons of portals
and wanna-bes exist, from Yahoo, MSN (Microsoft Network), AOL and Google to more
specialized sites for women, sports fanatics and stock traders. Indeed, the Internet
seems to mimic the broadcasting industry in this regard: instead of "broad"
portals such as AOL or Yahoo holding preeminence, many of us are looking for
gateways to the Web that cater to our own tastes. Google's iGoogle portal is a
great example: you get some basic tools - weather, search, Google's Gmail, and a
YouTube feed - and can add "gadgets" to bring in stock quotes, travel info,
news headlines, and so on. Yahoo's myYahoo offers the same thing, as does AOL.
Does this mean the end of Yahoo, AOL and Google? Not hardly. Unlike Netscape, the
online search firms and AOL understood things were changing, and they've rolled
with the times. How successful each will be is still undetermined: Google has a huge
share of the online ad market, but that can change if more precise, more targeted
means of advertising are found. Google's claim to fame, after all, is based on its
algorithms that are used to figure out which Web sites on a given topic are the most
popular, as well as what people are interested in, ad-wise. If someone, somewhere,
comes up with better formulas, then Google can start to worry.
Or, they can write a check. Many other companies, from AOL to Microsoft to Yahoo
have done the same thing over the years. Someone else developed Yahoo's e-mail
service, Microsoft has acquired, and then refined, all sorts of technology as well
as developing its own.
In technology, sometimes innovation comes at the end of a checkbook as much as it
may have via a slide-rule. The key lies in being able to spot what's good and then
run with it, if that's at all possible.
The question is going to be who's going to spot the next wave of "disruptive
technologies" that change the way we do common tasks. "Search," after all,
once upon a time took place in the card catalogs of the local library; now, it
involves keystrokes and mouse clicks. The next revolution could come in music or
movies just as easily as in reference materials and Web browsing, and watching for
such changes makes this beat a fun and fascinating one.
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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.