Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Do That Thing You Do: After Cuts, Both Yahoo and MySpace Need a Little Something

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A few weeks ago, when I was having breakfast with legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andreessen about his new venture fund, he talked about what he thought was critical to being successful as an Internet company.

Ticking off names, from Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Andreessen said he always favored technical entrepreneurs for one key reason: “You need someone who lives and breathes product.”

It’s a refrain I have heard a lot recently from a wide range of people in the sector, most especially when talking about two of the more challenging renovations of key Internet brands going on of late.

That would be: Yahoo and MySpace.

In recent days, the focus at both Yahoo (YHOO) and MySpace, a division of News Corp. (NWS), has been on cost cuts, management rejiggering and, of course, layoffs, as new leaders at each Web giant are trying mightily to push the reset button. (News Corp owns Dow Jones, which owns this Web site.)

No surprise, their efforts have gotten a lot of attention and have been the subject of a lot of coverage (here for Yahoo and here for MySpace).

But, as those clean-up efforts wrap up, both have to show a whole lot more than that if either is to truly succeed at their tasks–which is to make both services much more relevant and exciting in the fast-changing Web arena.

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While Yahoo and MySpace remain huge Web properties–and Yahoo, in particular, is very profitable in comparison to most Internet outfits–the widespread perception across the digital sector for too long now is that they are both tired in some significant ways and in desperate need of innovation.

Their big tasks include an overhaul of product offerings and features, a refreshing of brand and, most importantly, a strategic rethink that will set them on a new course for the next several years.

This is not a new thing in the Internet space, which has seen once-popular companies fall by the wayside as their products have gotten dull and consumers weary.

AOL–the Time Warner (TWX) unit whose new CEO, Tim Armstrong, is trying to reinvigorate that iconic but deeply tarnished brand too–is the classic example of this problem. But there have been too many that either hobble along, get subsumed into a larger company or just wither and die.

Sudden death is not likely to be the case for either Yahoo or MySpace, but time is most definitely running out for the pair to show some true product pizzazz and a strategic road map.

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At Yahoo, most of the glitter thus far has come from the personality and charms of CEO Carol Bartz (pictured here), who has been hard at work projecting an image of moxie and decisiveness in her efforts to get some momentum at the turmoil-plagued company.

Replacing former CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang, Bartz has largely been busy cutting staff, pruning products that she recently dubbed “space debris” and rounding out her executive staff.

She’s also been prepping a new branding campaign to accompany Yahoo’s overhauled front page, which is set for the fall.

But, as the famous Peggy Lee song (see video below) goes: “Is that all there is, is that all there is?/If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is.”

But breaking out the booze and having a ball is actually not such a bad idea. To my mind, instead of tweaking what is there and emphasizing what it has been, Yahoo now has the chance to just go for broke and boldly make some dramatic choices.

That is especially true if it forgoes a search and online advertising partnership with Microsoft (MSFT), since Yahoo is going to have to do more than just what it already does better.

Interestingly, it is Microsoft, with its well-reviewed new Bing search service, that seems the most aggressively innovative these days.

So, why not, for example, make a shocking move, say, into the premium online video space? Yahoo certainly could pick up some damaged goods, like Veoh and Joost, on the cheap.

But what about buying the early winner: Hulu?

While the three studios that are its joint owners (the fourth owner is Providence Equity Partners)–News Corp., Disney (DIS) and GE (GE) unit NBC Universal–don’t seem inclined to sell, many sources close to the company said they most certainly would for the right price and perhaps a stake in Yahoo too.

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Yahoo has been one of Hulu’s many distribution partners, but that effort has been lackluster. As owner, it would surely point its vast traffic and tech resources at Hulu to good effect.

In this kind of scenario, Google (GOOG) and Comcast (CMCSA) are also contenders for Hulu, but it is only Yahoo that has the truly better record of being able to create, manage and distribute Web content.

Plus, you could call it: HuHoo or YaLu or, better still, HooLu.

There are lots of ideas along these lines for Yahoo, but the overarching idea is to dominate in areas its rivals do not.

For MySpace, which was the dominator until rival Facebook cleaned its clock and then some, it is both a crisis of identity, a broken consumer experience and technology that needs a major overhaul.

It is hard to say what MySpace is, except really noisy. While the music part of that is good, the idea of making it hip again seems well-nigh impossible.

But it could be useful as an entertainment hub where it is fun to be. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch raised this concept recently, in fact, and it is a good one.

That’s because Facebook is aggressively un-fun, with a fascist design sensibility and a thick ethos of utility and enforced busy-ness. Whenever I use it, I always start to feel like I am 23 minutes late.

There really is no good overall and unified entertainment hub on the Web in a massive way–one that aggregates all kinds of interests. I would, for example, love a place where I could easily live in a “Gossip Girl” universe.

Best of all, such a direction moves MySpace well away from Facebook, where is needs to get pronto.

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MySpace CEO Owen Van Natta (pictured here) said as much in a memo to employees yesterday:

“As I’ve said before, simplifying and unifying our site is fundamental to our success going forward. MySpace should feel like one platform–not 15 sites loosely stitched together. We consider our diverse content offering a strength but too many logos and disorganized verticals makes the site difficult to navigate and creates confusion about our brand identity. Our users don’t know if we’re a social portal, a music site, or an entertainment hub.”

In her own memo last week, Bartz also talked about the need for speed and definition of Yahoo:

“I’ve noticed that since the reorg, people seem like they’re waiting for something. I’m not sure if it’s a sugar-low or what, but we need to stop waiting and get moving. Good things do not come to those who wait, they come to those who make things happen.”

Actually, per Marc Andreessen, good things come to those who make things. Wonderful things, fun things, memorable things and, if you are Steve Jobs, just one more thing.

Let’s just hope in the case of Yahoo and MySpace, they don’t settle for just any thing.

Until they do that thing they do, here is a catchy video from the movie, “That Thing You Do”:


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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle