Kara Swisher

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Yahoo Product Head and CTO Ari Balogh Speaks!


In BoomTown’s bold quest to annoyingly stick a Flip digital video camera in the face of every Yahoo senior exec, this week I worked the last nerve of its CTO and EVP of Products, Aristotle “Ari” Balogh.

Actually, the 45-year-old Balogh is a very calm and pleasant man, especially considering the huge responsibility that has been foisted on him by CEO Carol Bartz to rejigger how Yahoo (YHOO) makes its products and services and deploy its technology in a more efficient, centralized and most of all, innovative manner.

It is actually a process that was started under the previous leadership, especially President Sue Decker.

But now, after a number of reorgs, a wide swath of Yahoo is under Balogh’s purview–from search to open initiatives to product development to trying to fix Yahoo’s big problem of never quite getting its innovations out the door.

To explain all this, Balogh sat down with me twice–he is clearly a glutton for punishment–to talk about where Yahoo stood as it sought to dig itself out of its long slump and reemerge as the potent Internet force it once was.

While he successfully avoided the questions about Yahoo’s talks to do a search and advertising partnership with Microsoft (MSFT), he did talk about his view of its new Bing search service (well done, but can it scale?–which is an engineer’s favorite schoolyard taunt).

He also addressed the bigger question of how Yahoo can stay relevant in the fast-changing Web 2.0 world.

To Balogh, copying trendsetters like Facebook is not the answer. For example, he noted that Yahoo is more a place where consumers do “one-way” follows of things important in their lives rather than wanting another social-network service (which Yahoo has tried and failed at, actually).

“We’re not going to be another social network,” said Balogh flatly, agreeing that that boat has already long sailed without Yahoo on it with a significant product–Yahoo famously failed to buy Facebook, well before Balogh arrived in early 2008 from VeriSign (VRSN). “But we can be a place where people make and manage the important connections they have.”

How this will all play out is one of the most interesting questions in Silicon Valley because–even after all the turmoil–Yahoo remains one of the largest sites on the Web.

About 500 million monthly unique visitors enter its homepage and course through its vast site constantly, from its search pages to its massive email and instant-messaging services and its popular suite of content sites.

No one says Yahoo is not big–what everyone says is that it has missed many major and critical Internet trends as it has become mired in a management morass and external battles.

Now, with new leadership in place, observers are waiting to see what’s next.

In this regard, it is important what Balogh thinks since he is perhaps Yahoo’s only person who even closely resembles a Web product visionary now that former CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang has stepped aside and Bartz has taken up command.

While he typically shies away from the spotlight, he is not bashful about talking about Yahoo’s infamous lugubrious development process.

“We have pockets of great technology that we have to really put back together into a coherent infrastructure,” said Balogh. “We have to get the basics right and focus on those core daily experiences that make Yahoo extraordinary.”

That is easier said than done, especially when changes impact so many consumers and, of course, the bottom line. Choosing what key trends to attack is harder for a large public company like Yahoo, which has a lot to protect in its current businesses.

“There will always be a battle between new ideas and monetization,” said Balogh. “The question is how much do you push that line back and forth?”

That fine line will surely be tested with the rollout of its new homepage in the fall, a long project that has been codenamed “Metro.”

“It is not a radical departure, but we have given users more power to do what they want and also serve as the best of Web versus that is already inside of Yahoo,” said Balogh of the new homepage. “With technology, it is always a push-pull.”

Here’s my video interview with him, talking about all this and more:

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus