Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

What the Combined Yahoo-AOL Might Look Like, as Talks Drag On–Oops–Heat Up!

As has been copiously reported here and all over, Yahoo and AOL have been engaged in never-ending talks about a possible deal to merge their flagging Internet businesses.

Now, sources tell me, the circle of executives at both companies interfacing with each other has been widened, for purposes of due diligence.

That chit-chatting includes Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, who has been in New York several times recently [UPDATE: But not yesterday, in a story I had previously linked to here]–where AOL parent, Time Warner, is located–to meet once with its CEO, Jeff Bewkes, and see if they can actually complete the merger.

Now, all this frantic activity does not mean a deal will necessarily be struck. In fact, in typical Yahoo style, it is going very slowly and that is never a good thing in dealmaking.

But it is this kind of ramped-up blabbery that has many at both companies predicting–hoping, really–that a deal will go through, sooner or later, as soon as Time Warner and Yahoo can agree on a price.

Or, more precisely, a percentage, since Yahoo’s stock price has been falling like a particularly sharp knife of late.

Sources said Yahoo does not want Time Warner (TWX) to have any more than 25 percent of the new company in a trade for AOL’s assets–although that figure would be slightly more if the media giant throws in some of that “Harry Potter”-generated cash into the deal kitty.

Yahoo (YHOO) management, sources said, also think its assets are of significantly better quality than AOL’s, and it still has that powerful–although declining–share in the lucrative search market.

Thus, it does not want to pay the $8 to $10 billion price Time Warner wants, and it should not either. (Here is a good analysis on the price issue by Silicon Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget.)

But Yahoo shares closed yesterday at a troubling $14.58, down 73 cents, or almost five percent.

That means its market valuation also declined by many billion dollars very quickly. It is now at $20.2 billion.

These profound stock drops, said several sources, could spur Yahoo to act before it gets even worse, which is why talks have been more frequent in recent weeks.

While not the best state of mind, panic is always a good motivator, and both companies are surely desperate to turbocharge themselves in the face of tough competition and avoidable management mishaps in recent years.

The hope? That together the pair can do better than they have separately–by combining their advertising, content and communications assets, which are among the largest in the world.

In addition, the “new” Yahoo would be able to make massive cost cuts, including layoffs, under the cover of integration and starting off with a clean slate.

So who would emerge more powerful in a new set-up–AOL or Yahoo?

Here’s a short cheat list:

Content:

AOL and Yahoo have a similar range of content assets, with big sites in all the classic categories, like news, financial, sports and lifestyles. Yahoo’s content head is Scott Moore, while AOL’s is Bill Wilson (both pictured here, left to right).

As I wrote yesterday, I expect that the more dominant Yahoo will rule, slashing and burning most of the AOL-branded properties, keeping only interesting newer brands like sports blog FanHouse, celeb blog TMZ and the Engadget, Tuaw and JoyStiq tech blogs.

And while former Microsoftie Moore is the likely head of this behemoth, don’t count on the very adept Wilson, who is known as a skilled corporate player at AOL, to stick around without a big role in this arena.

Communications:

Again, advantage Yahoo, which has bigger calendaring, email and instant messaging assets, an area once overwhelmingly dominated by AOL. That was then, of course.

Still, AOL’s communications tools are used by a huge audience worldwide and the pair together would be a powerhouse. So much so, in fact, that this might be the one major regulatory hurdle any deal would face.

Advertising:

Again, Yahoo would probably dominate, having just hired well-known former Microsoft exec Joanne Bradford to head up U.S. advertising sales. AOL’s top ad exec is Lynda Clarizio, a former lawyer who is considered dogged but much less experienced than Bradford. (Both are pictured here, right to left.)

And, Yahoo does have its search ad business, however weakening, and a stronger graphical ad business, even if the sector will be most under siege in the current down economy.

Plus, AOL’s Advertising.com, while a major ad network, is more of a business subject to bruising competition and squeezed margins.

Community:

Tapan Bhat (pictured here) now rules community at Yahoo, as well as its homepage, having just inherited it from the departing Brad Garlinghouse.

But AOL has a savvy and voluble exec in Joanna Shields, who came recently via its Bebo social-networking acquisition. While AOL woefully overpaid for Bebo and got played into thinking that other bidders were more interested than they actually were, it was Shields (pictured here) who essentially did that playing.

Sign her up for a top exec role in the combined company pronto!

In all seriousness, there is room for both in the newco, as both AOL and Yahoo seriously bite in the social-networking space. They will surely need a lot more than Bhat and Shields if they want to become true players in Web 2.0′s hottest and probably most important trend.

Engineering:

Yahoo. I do not need to explain this, do I?

Okay: AOL has always been incompetent in the technical arena, since its beginning days, compared with Silicon Valley companies like Yahoo.

All yours, Ash Patel!

Management:

Now, it is here that it gets interesting.

Most feel the push by Yang to do an AOL deal–and make no mistake, it is being pushed by him most of all–is due to increased pressure from his board, as well as major investors, who have had just about enough of his leadership.

“There is no way Jerry stays on as CEO in a newco,” said one source about Yang (pictured here). “He’ll be kicked upstairs as chairman, and I will think [President Sue] Decker will also have to go eventually, since there will be a lot of resistance if she is named CEO.”

But, said other sources, these major management changes will not happen immediately, if at all, as it is too distracting in the wake of a deal and ruins the positive “story” that both companies will surely want to spin.

And spin they will! (Go, Tricia! Go, Jill!)

And while he has a reputation for sharkish political skills, especially compared to Yahoo’s very diplomatic U.S. head, Hilary Schneider, expect AOL President Ron Grant to be an important part of the transition, since he is good–almost too good–at cutting costs.

Most expect his boss, AOL CEO Randy Falco, not to be part of the new company, thereby separating him and Grant, who are nicknamed “Smithers and Burns” at AOL, after “The Simpsons” creepy duo.

Most likely, there will be a search for a top-level CEO to take over the combined company–someone of the stature of New Corp.’s No. 2 Peter Chernin or eBay’s former leader Meg Whitman (except now, she is apparently Sen. John McCain’s pick for Treasury Secretary, if the Republican Presidential candidate were to win the election).

“If this has any chance of working out, the board has to push restart on the leadership,” said one person close to the situation, who notes that this deal is Yang’s last chance to truly impact the future of the company he co-founded and preserve its legacy. “Everyone gets that, even Jerry.”

But I think the idea that Yang would leave if there were to be a merger of Yahoo with AOL is wishful thinking on the part of his critics.

He appears tome to be very committed to seeing his vision of turning around Yahoo through.

And those who have counted him out always seem to be the ones who have been typically wrong, such as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and shareholder activist Carl Icahn.

Because, for all the turmoil at Yahoo, it’s Yang still calling the shots.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald