Kara Swisher

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Yahoo’s Product Runway: Are You In or Out?

I am here at Yahoo HQ in Sunnyvale, Calif., to check out “Product Runway,” which is the Silicon Valley Internet giant’s attempt to show that it can still innovate.

First and foremost is the launch of Livestand, a personalized news reader that is similar to Flipboard and a variety of other rivals, including — soon — Google.

It’s Yahoo’s attempt to present a business-as-usual feel — amidst a long and agonizing and very public strategic overview that might also include the sale of the company (or not!), in the wake of the recent firing of its last CEO, Carol Bartz.

It has caused a lot of trauma inside Yahoo, which can’t help with innovation.

But we press on!

In other words, despite the three-ring circus going on outside, Yahoo wants you to know it is still hard at work.

We begin:

10:35 am: As the strains of U2 die out, Yahoo Chief Product Officer Blake Irving takes the stage, which is actually set up in the company’s cafeteria. I can smell lunch being made nearby and I am hungry.

Apt — Yahoo certainly needs to show off a lot of cool stuff or its fate will be cooked.

No pressure, Blake!

“Personally, I am more bullish on Yahoo today,” he said. “What is Yahoo? Simple. It’s the premier digital media company. Period. Stop.”

Oh, if it were only that easy.

10:46 am: Irving pulls out his favorite slide, which looks like a chemistry test. It lists the various elements of the product strategy, with things like personalization, mobile, premium.

Now to Livestand, which is available on the Apple iTunes app store right now.

Don’t all rush at once!

Irving notes that Livestand is more than just an app — it is a platform.

In other words, Yahoo wants to help publishers publish online. Kind of a Facebook of content.

If Yahoo can pull it off, that is. (And, of course, unless Facebook decides to do the same.)

10:50 am: Livestand is an HTML5 “personalized living magazine.”

“This is the way Web pages are going to look,” declares Irving. Which is to say, heavy on photos, swoopy navigation, a television screen-like interface.

Irving uses the example of Surfer magazine, which is a good idea since waves always look pretty. Especially in a video-in-frame with Kelly Slater in Hawaii.

But, in essence, for anyone who has used Flipboard for years now, none of this is entirely different.

10:54 am: The look of what would be the Yahoo News page is actually much more interesting, since it is clearly a whole lot better than the Web page.

Irving also shows off a “living ad” — in this case, an unusually snuggly couple on a couch. It is cool, but creepy.

When launched, the ad has tap points. Irving — naughtily declaring about what is an ad, “I’ll tap that” — taps the lady’s butt, which would also have been my move. We learn about the jeans, of course.

10:58 am: Irving then shows off the ability to add feeds.

Next, something called “Cocktails.” First up, a developer tool called Yahoo Mojito and Yahoo Manhattan, which is a hosting service. The company will open-source both the technologies in 2012.

Irving brings up Mike Kerns, VP of Personalization & Social, who came to Yahoo when it bought the innovative sports fan site called Citizen Sports.

“We like to ship sh#t,” he notes. I like Mike Kerns immediately.

Kerns intros C.O.R.E. No, it is not a secret government organization that takes out fussy bloggers, who might be more critical than Yahoo execs would like.

In fact, it stands for “content optimization relevance engine.” Of course it does.

Simply put, C.O.R.E. is trying to link the right content or whatever to the right consumers and who likes what. Ladies like this, dudes like this. Apparently, “men of multiple ages” enjoy stories about golden chicken.

11:11 am: Kerns is moving on to social, especially its integration with Facebook. While much touted, sources tell me it has gone slower than expected in terms of use, but that it is improving.

Kerns talks about the idea of matching content to conversations to interests and, well, you know — the now exhausting world of modern media consumption.

The world in which you can no longer simply read an article and enjoy it — you must comment, share, discuss, parse, tweet.

Does anyone remember when you read something cool and just kept it to yourself?

Forget it, pal! It is a full-information society now and you better get on board and start poking your friends about every little thing.

(Personally, I plan on becoming a hermit in 3 … 2 … 1.)

11:18 am: Now Tim Parsey, who is Yahoo’s design head. He is hands down the most delightful exec the company has had in a while, mostly because he loves to smirk adorkably.

He shows off Yahoo’s first original design, which was a dull list. And then another really bad logo. But Parsey loves it! It’s kitschy!

Smirk attack!

Parsey moves into what has to happen now, which is to deliver a much more emotional experience and a much better designed one. He uses words like “humanism.”

Say what? He is right — Yahoo has for too long completely ignored design as an important part of the experience.

That’s why Flipboard was so quickly touted — it was pretty and fun. And it is why everyone is simply forced to love Apple products.

11:22 am: Parsey even has a code for it, called REM — for rational, emotional and meaningful.

He shows off a weather app. People take photos and they can be used in the app. Then Yahoo Mail for the iPad, whic is also handsome with photos and video. Livestand, also pretty.

“Great way to differentiate,” says Parsey. He calls it “one Yahoo!” Indeed.

11:35 am: I’ll admit it. After Parsey-fest, I zoned out for a sec when IntoNow dude, Adam Cahan, comes up.

Donut emergency!

Back to IntoNow, it’s the television indexing service that Yahoo bought in April.

Essentially, more ways to watch the media — in this case, video — and do 53 other things at the very same time. Memo to humanity: We will all be paying continuous partial attention for the rest of eternity.

Like I said: Hermitage!

11:41 am: Product dude Irving is back, making a point that, despite all the public mishegas, Yahoo has been busy at innovating.

A redo of email, better search, social “Facebar” with Facebook, Flickr for Google Android.

Irving is correct — Yahoo’s engineers have been hard at work and deserve kudos for doing so, even with attrition issues, stock declines and questions about the company’s very future being debated daily.

The problem is that too many of these improvements are mostly incremental and essentially table stakes for tech companies, most of whom have introed many more significant innovations in the same time frame as Yahoo has.

Google did Android, Google+ (as well as some notable failures). Microsoft did Kinect, Windows Phone, Windows 8. Amazon did Kindle Fire. Facebook did a range of major updates, as it has grown like a weed.

And there’s Apple. You might have heard of the iPhone and the iPad.

You get my point. Yahoo’s Product Runway today is well done, but what it really needs to be is just the beginning of a take-off.

11:48 am: Now Q&A time.

The first question is what took so long to get Livestand out, the second is why should people use Livestand since Flipboard and others have already been around for a dog’s age.

I ask about design — mostly because I want Parsey to use the word “delicious” a lot — and also about all the turmoil around the company and its impact on product creation. (I decide not to mention that Yahoo blew its acquisition of the bookmarking site, Delicious, and then sold it.)

Parsey delivers on the delicious scale, noting that Yahoo must have one design experience and yet has a lot of different interfaces. In other words, it cannot be Apple, but it can feel a lot more cohesive.

Irving talks a little bit around the obvious elephant in the room — the future of Yahoo — noting that the product staff was trying to focus and forget the storm going on outside.

“We have dreams about what this company can be,” says Irving.

You and me both, brother.

12:04 pm: More questions that are too detailed for my tastes, since they have delivered lunch and I can see it and I am ravenous.

As Parsey might say: It looks deliiiiiccccious.

Now, let’s hope Yahoo can do even more tasty stuff.

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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