Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Microsoft Mugs Yahoo, While Yahoo Dithers: How to Lose to a Bear and Influence Nobody

BoomTown really does hope that in some secret airport hangar right now Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang are meeting, in order to hammer out a fair search deal that will benefit them both.

I’d even insist that Yahoo’s noisiest board member, activist shareholder Carl Icahn, be there too, to make sure all sides were copacetic and there would be no last-minute switcheroos and backstabbings.

Because, long ago in galaxy far, far away, what is now going on between Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo (YHOO) would have seemed inane.

I am talking about this past January, of course, when the idea of the pair doing some kind of partnership together to fight off the aggressive march of Google (GOOG) would have been been easy to imagine and perhaps even to pull off by the pair of star-crossed tech companies.

Instead, they have been bickering and puffing their insufficient-to-the-task chests out at each other to little true effect. Meanwhile, back at the organic ranch, Google racks up more share of the search market by the minute and aims to do the same in mobile and video.

And while everyone is suffering in this economic meltdown, including Google, it’s clear that it’s better to be ready to rumble when it inevitably ends than it is to be still dithering over a deal that seems also inevitable but never seems to take shape.

The latest development in the story has been Microsoft’s hiring of a well-regarded former Yahoo search and online monetization star named Qi Lu. It was a great get by Microsoft, coming after another recent important hire of another Yahoo search exec, Sean Suchter.

And there are more to come, many sources tell me, as Microsoft puts the pressure on Yahoo by sucking the talent right out of the place.

Not a bad idea, especially if Microsoft is intent on spending big-time to strengthen its online bench to battle Google.

While he grabbed talent, Ballmer extended a bit of a wilted olive branch to Yahoo in an interview with The Wall Street Journal after the Lu hiring (thanks for nothing, Frank!).

Said Ballmer:

We’re fully prepared to compete without any partnership with Yahoo. We don’t need to act. Would it be advantageous for both of us to make a deal? Look, the fundamental basis for doing the search deal with Yahoo has to do with critical mass in the advertising marketplace. It doesn’t have to do with technology, or any of these other things, it really is a market phenomenon. Together we would have more advertisers….which means we’d have more relevant ads on our page. We’d have higher monetization levels possible in front of us because there would be more people bidding on more key words. Most importantly, Google would have perhaps a real credible competitor sooner.”

And the hiring if Lu and Suchter would surely help in an integration, as Ballmer also said in the Journal interview.

Microsoft needs all the muscle it can get because its money-losing efforts so far have not added up to much in the way of share or innovative influence. (And no, I will not ever admit Live Search Cashback is innovative or massively effective.)

The problem is that buying talent is just a tactic–a nice bit of thuggish mugging Microsoft has long been so adept at, to be sure–as one way to force Yahoo into a deal.

But it is not a strategy and in the end, does not give Microsoft what it needs, which is a serious stake in the game. By that, I mean real share, from 20 to 30 percent.

One person close to the situation said it perfectly to me recently: “Microsoft can hire every Yahoo engineer in the place and that still wouldn’t mean it would get to the kind of market share it needs to have to truly compete.”

Ballmer, of course, is now apparently in one of his famously stubborn moods, telling many people (who have recounted his sentiments to me) that he has tried and tried again, does not know who at Yahoo has the power to get a deal done and that he will only do a deal when Yahoo comes to Microsoft ready to go.

He is right about the first two. As to the third, I am perplexed why he would wait even a second and is instead–for once in his life–acting patient. Again, it kind of makes sense tactically, I guess, to drive a better deal.

But, if it is to work well and be a long-term successful partnership, Microsoft has to give Yahoo a decent deal anyway, right?

And what happened to the Ballmer who scared me a little bit when he almost jumped out of his seat at his most recent appearance at the sixth D: All Things conference, loudly declaring that Microsoft keeps “coming and coming and COMING!!!”

Where’d that guy go?

Instead you get this waiting-to-be-asked-to-the-prom stuff from Ballmer in the Journal interview:

I think good ideas are usually better done quickly than slowly, so it would probably be better for both us, and certainly for Yahoo, if we were to do it sooner than later. But at the end of the day, that would have [to] be something Yahoo would be as interested in as I have expressed our interest.”

As for Yahoo, I am not sure what to say, except its options are running out fast.

While its efforts at innovating search are promising–Yahoo’s BOSS (Build Your Own Search Service) this week showed nice traction, with 10 million queries a day for the customized search products–it is still not enough in the face of Google’s power and Microsoft’s financial heft.

But, according to sources and also several people Yang and Yahoo Chairman Roy Bostock have spoken to recently, there is still a debate among directors as to whether a search sale or partnership with Microsoft should be struck.

I think that’s why Icahn has been so mouthy of late in the press about the importance of doing a search deal. If it were all lined up and ready to go, he’d be as silent as a church mouse.

“Carl likes to agitate any way he can and now that he is a director, he has to be more careful,” said one person who knows him well. “This talking it up is his way of trying to push it through, since he still does not have board support.”

According to numerous sources, in fact, Yahoo leadership is worried about the leverage it would have in doing a deal with Microsoft, and some think a merger with AOL needs to be completed first.

Actually, if Yahoo did manage to do a search deal of almost any kind with Microsoft first, the impact would surely lift its stock–even now–and give it the valuation needed to complete the AOL deal.

That’s definitely the feeling now at AOL owner Time Warner (TWX), said many sources, which dearly would prefer that Yahoo strike a Microsoft search deal first, get its stock closer to a decent level, appoint a new Yahoo CEO and deliver a clearer idea of its path before Time Warner commits to selling its online assets to Yahoo.

“Yahoo has trouble making decisions,” said one source there, who acknowledges AOL’s own weaknesses readily. “So we’re not entirely confident in placing our fate with them.”

Indeed, clarity is always a preferred state, and many I talked to think that getting there would be easier than either Yahoo or Microsoft thinks.

“It really could be done quickly if they would only stop plotting all the chess moves and do something,” said one source. “This is not a game.”

No, it is definitely not, because a game is supposed to be fun, and watching this unfold is anything but that.

It’s not even a game, according to Ballmer in the Journal interview, at the very end.

Tellingly, he compared the struggle with Yahoo to an old cliché of a story about outrunning a bear (it used to be an AOL exec favorite too, so I know it well):

I don’t know if you know the old story about the two guys out in the woods who see a bear, and one guy says, boy, we’d better really run fast, or that bear is going to get us. We’ve got to run faster than the bear does. And the other guy says, no, I’ve just got to run faster than you do. In this economy, maybe that’s the right way to think about it.”

Years ago, Ballmer said almost exactly the same thing to me and others present about distant No. 3 Microsoft not necessarily having to catch No. 1 (Google) if it could chase and knock off No. 2 (Yahoo) and grab that spot instead.

Strap on your sneakers, Yahoo.

Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik