Bleeding purple

March 25th 2018

Bleeding purple for Yahoo!

I have been following Yahoo for about 15 years. I never actually worked there so I mostly have the point of view of a consumer and of journalist who interviewed about a dozen of executives. I just finished reading Jeremy Ring's book We Were Yahoo!: From Internet Pioneer to the Trillion Dollar Loss of Google and Facebook. Here are a few thoughts on Yahoo!. Much has been said about the Purple Company already. So unless you have a special connection to that brand, I don't expect you to read that post.

I believe I have read all books about Yahoo! starting with Inside Yahoo! by Karen Angel to the one by Nicholas Carlson : Marissa Mayer and the fight to save Yahoo!. The latter is packed with insider information to the point where you're given an exchange that took place in a hotel room between two executives on the day Microsoft made their unsollicited offer. It's crazy good. I highly recommend it.

I could seriously talk about Yahoo! for hours and hours, about their strategy over the years. But I had to make a few choices...

The discovery of Yahoo!

I'm French. On October 2001, I was going to spend nearly a year in Rochester, NY as a French teacher and French T.A. In those days, I had a AOL account which therefore was tied to my ISP. I needed an open email account to stay in touch with friends and family. After trying a few services like Excite, I chose Yahoo. But at first, I did hate that name.

Yahoo nevertheless quickly grew on me. What I particularly appreciated about Yahoo Mail was that it offered an all-in-one place for your personal information. Not only did you get email, you also had an address book, a calendar and a notepad. You were able to have a very homogeneous experience and I had viewed Yahoo! as a sort of online office environnement available everywhere. Also, what struck me was how well-strutured the Yahoo network was in those days. Yahoo News was hosted at news.yahoo.com and the French edition was hosted at fr.news.yahoo.com. And it was structured the same way for all services, across all regions.

On Intellisync

I got my first tech gadget in the US: a translucent blue Neo Visor PDA. I felt like I had a small computer in my pocket. Then at one point I saw that Microsoft had launched the Hotmail Plus subscription, which, among other benefits, enabled you to synchronize your data with your PDA via the Intellisync software. One day, as I was digging into the setting options of Yahoo! Calendar and Yahoo Address Book, to my big surprise, Intellisync was available, ready to be downloaded... for free.

I felt like Microsoft was bragging about a new feature they made you pay for while Yahoo provided the same exact service in a much more humble way. Now that I think about it 15 years later, my guess is that Microsoft had a global deal with Intellisync whereas Yahoo! probably had to pay a small fee for each of their customer using that synchronization tool. Hence the need for them to dig it deep into those options so it would not get too popular. I'm not too sure though.

On Yahoo! Briefcase

FastCompany's Dan Tynan mentions several services that Yahoo! pionnered long before they became mainstream. One of them is Yahoo! Briefcase, the cloud storage solution. It changed my life. You'd only get 30 MB of storage for free but that was huge. I even paid for their premium Yahoo! Briefcase + Yahoo! Photo storage to get 100 MB of storage.

But the real deal was Yahoo! Drive. It was a small software you'd install on Windows and which created a network drive for you to access your data online. It truly was the foundation of Dropbox. Back in those days, you'd have other options though, like iBackup or Xdrive, which I believe was acquired by Microsoft later on. Unfortunately, Yahoo! Drive was largely abused for illegal activities and was quickly given up...

Also, Yahoo! integrated the Briefcase right within Yahoo! Mail in order to save attached files over there. That's what Microsoft is doing right now with Outook.com and OneDrive.

Yahoo!: The Golden age

Financially speaking Jeremy Ring would certainly disagree. But from a consumer point of view, the golden age of Yahoo took place between 2002 and 2008.

On Yahoo! Mail Plus

I had been subscribing to the Yahoo! Mail Plus offer for years. In those days it offered quite a lot compared to the standard version. In addition to an adless interface you'd get disposable email addresses, more storage, more rules to create, premium support and various other things that have gradually been retired or given for free. Most importantly, it had a real market value.

On Launchcast Plus

When in the US in 2001-2002 and then again during the summer of 2003, I discovered lots of rock music. By opposition, France was losing its music culture broadcasting POP dance Britney Spear-style artists. The cultural void of the 80s was back... So I started to use Launchcast and subscribed the Launchcast Plus radio service. Imagine, in those days, there were no regional filters. I was able to stream the US music I had discovered few years ago. I rated hundreds of artists, albums and songs and truly had a personal radio. 10 years later, I tried to move everything to Spotify but it never was quite the same.

On Yahoo Plus

Then I suddenly stumbled upon a brand new offer. It was called Yahoo! Plus. This was in the era of BYODSL. People were getting out of AOL's closed environnement and started using third party services. For something like $4-5/month you'd get Yahoo! Mail Pus, Launchcast Plus, Briefcase + photo storage, an antivirus (which I never actually used) and a premium version of My Yahoo (which, by the way, they should better shut down as nothing seems to work anymore over there). It was like this offer was made just for me. I jumped in. All the way to the end.

The Yahoo! Browser

Since most of my online world was related to Yahoo! I really wanted a full Yahoo! browser - And the Internet Explorer/Firefox toolbar was not enough. As the world was going free from AOL (remember AOHell?) I went into the opposite direction and wanted an all-in-one experience. As I said before, I've always been a browser geek. Naturally, I wanted a Yahoo! browser.

To my astonishment, it came to life! Yahoo started to make deals with DLS providers around the world: SBC in the US, Mangoosta in France, BT in the UK. Only SBC had a dedicated browser though. But again, I was in France. Nevertheless I ordered a CD, had it mailed to my former host family in Rochester who transferred it over to France. I was able to read the content and extract the browser part of the disc.

I probably was the only Internet user to have experienced the Yahoo! browser in France. In fact I still have that CD. The browser was based on Internet Explorer. It was Yahoo!'s answer to AOL Explorer. Yet, as the web services evolved, the browser did not. It became unusable.

Meanwhile, I had discovered MSN Explorer built in Windows XP. Then came MSN 8 and Microsoft opened a beta program. To be fair, the software was much more exciting and felt much more stable - and it was in active development. I took part in those testing scenarios, got into it quite a bit and eventually ended up as a Microsoft MVP for MSN Premium in 2004-2005.

Yahoo! Mail

Yet my eyes still were gazing at Yahoo! In 2004, I learned that Yahoo! had acquired Oddpost. I knew something important would soon be coming to Yahoo! Mail. The next year, the Sunnyvale company launch their Ajax client in beta. Many people were angry and it took two years, until 2007, for Yahoo! to optimize the web application and launch it to the public.

As for me, I was pretty excited by this Liam character and that techy email service. I launched the Yahoo! Mail Group in 2005. Advanced email users gathered over there to exchange feedbacks. Eventually dozens of members on the Mail team joined as well and we had a direct way to provide feedbacks, to get answers and to try new features. After a couple years, Yahoo added a special stamp to make that group "official".

But then complainers wanted to be heard. They filled the group with lamentations over and over again. Yahoo Mail employees ran away. Tired, I closed that group last year once and for all.

Tech vs Media

Much has been written about this debate, but here is my take.

Between 2004-2009, we used to hear a lot about Web 2.0. And again, Yahoo! was striving acquiring various companies. That's why I do not really agree with Jeremy Ring who places the downfall right in 2001's bubble burst.

In my opinion, in those days, Geeks had the power to make you famous or not. That's what happend to Firebird which became Firefox. That's what happened to Automattic's Wordpress which took over Typepad. That's what happened to Gmail and Google services at large. Yahoo truly needed to talk to the Geeks. That's what they did with Oddpost. That's what they did when hiring PHP creator Rasmus Lerdorf. That's what they did with Yahoo! Pipes. Geeks were the first ones to own a weblog. In fine, they were the one talking about you. Or not. Therefore you needed to be a technology company before all, regardless of your true objectives.

But I firmly believe that those efforts to appeal to the tech community were only true in those days. This time is over.

InsideYahoo.net

I eventually opened InsideYahoo.net, a weblog dedicated to the brand. After all, tech brand-oriented blogs were popping everything about Google, Apple or Microsoft...

I covered every little bits of Yahoo! and Yahoo France eventually invited me. I was told that people in Sunnyvale were regularly watching InsideYahoo.net and I needed to be invited... meaning "entertained" and officially acknowledged :). I went up to Yahoo! France and met with a couple of managers. They privately showed me what would later be the next version of Yahoo! Messenger. It was going to have customizable plugins to show a Launchcast radio module, or a calendar module. I guess they expected me to buzz around about this.

Was I truly a fan ? I do not really like that word. To me, a fan is blind. And I was not. I knew which product was good, I knew which one was better than the competition and I knew which one was best. But I also knew Yahoo's weeknesses.

The downfall

Again, from a consumer point of view, the downfall of Yahoo! came when Yang rejected Ballmer's offer. Sadly enough, that's when I became a technology journalist and had the opportunity to interview various executives, from David Mcdowell to Rich Riley to Jeff Bonforte to Adam Cahan... My understanding is that Microsoft slightly overpriced Yahoo!'s shares. Then, right after Yang refused to sell, it annoyed all shareholders and those shares went down in such a way it never recovered.

On peanut butter

One thing that was left out of Jeremy Ring's book was Brad Garlinghouse's Peanut Butter Manifesto. It did make absolute sense in many ways. Garlinghouse stated that the product management was horrible and internal teams were too often competing against one another for no reason.

Back when Yahoo was working on a bookmark management solution, they launched MyWeb. And then they launched MyWeb 2.0 which, for some reasons, co-existed with the first one. Yet, they previously had the very static Yahoo! Bookmarks website and had bought Delicious. Thus, at one point, Yahoo had no less than four services to manage your favorites websites...and that's without counting the Yahoo! Toolbar. Crazy.

There was a similar situation with Photos. Yahoo! Photos had been there for quite a while. The company was working on a more dynamic Yahoo Photo 3.0 but they had bought the Flickr service... it made no sense.

And of course, Yahoo! has been managing two email platforms for over ten years simply because people keep complaining and fight to keep a classic dialup-optimized version.

Keeping this in mind, however misfit Carol Bartz might have been as a CEO, she was not entirely wrong in closing various units here and there.

Unwelcomed

Since the very beginning of my interest, I had been sending feedbacks to the teams about everything. To be sure I'd be heard, I even sent a letter to the US... I remember one day I told them to enrich their messenger because Microsoft, who was working on Vista - codenamed Longhorn - was building a sidebar which would integrate various customizable modules as well as MSN Messenger. MSN Messenger would surely gain in popularity and send Yahoo! Messenger to the grave. Microsoft was also integrating their .Net Passport into Windows XP.

The team in charge of collecting those feedbacks came back to me and told me I should not just send feedbacks and share my ideas but apply for a job to join them. (Microsoft eventually decided to give up that sidebar when launching Vista.) Ironically, Yahoo did work on a new version of messenger. The one they would secretly show me a few years later.

Later, I did apply a couple of times to join Yahoo! in Paris. I had two interviews but never had a chance to be hired. I may have not applied to the right position though. To that day, I still believe I knew and understood the company more than any other candidates. I still believe I could make a difference over there. Especially after meeting various incompetent executives - who I shall not name - who had no idea where Yahoo! came from and who had a poor vision of the situation.

Ruins

Not much is left now. Yahoo! has transformed itself into a click bait portal full of native ads and uninteresting news pieces. Messenger was dead the day Microsoft moved Windows Live Messenger to Skype. Search was dead the day it joined Bing. My Yahoo is dying. Flickr, Delicious, Tumblr have all left the sinking ship.

The Mail service probably has the most value but you cannot seriously ask people to pay $3.5/month just to get rid of ads. Most importantly you can't ask people to pay that price when you did not even attempt at updating the address book, the calendar and the Notepad for a consistent experience. Did you know that the Notepad has not been updated in more than... 12 years?... Just saying.

We Were Yahoo

Even if you believe you know everything about Yahoo!, Jeremy Ring's book is a nice read. Like a few readers commenting on Amazon, I do believe that the section dedicated to the extorsion affair in which he found himself the target is a bit strange here. But it's still quite interesting. I would personnaly have placed it at the end, as a sort of bonus short story.

I did learn a few things here and there and most importantly, one can feel the true connection between the author and the company.

Then what?

I wish the Yahoo Mail team, the Aol Mail team and former Alto Mail team could fusion their efforts and offer a great email alternative. Eventually I wish this would give birth to a brand new company that could one day spin off from Verizon and regain liberty. But to be honest, those past years, I have hoped too much. I'm tired of it. And I'm not expecting anything anymore. More on Yahoo! Mail thoughts here. By opposition Microsoft is just doing an excellent job on Outlook.com and Office 365.

One way or another, ex-employee or consumer, we all bleed purple.