February 7, 2008

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Yahoo! Itís Microsoft!
Another one bites the dust?
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† jandrews@hippopress.com

On Feb. 1, Microsoft announced to the world that it had just offered nearly $45 billion to buy Yahoo!

(No, Iím not that excited about this news. The exclamation point, whether I like it or not ó and I donít ó is part of Yahoo!ís name. See, right there, an apostrophe right after an exclamation point? Horrid. Still, itís their name, and Iíll respect that, however begrudgingly. Anyway.)

Much has already been written on the business implications of the deal, should it go through. But what might the Internet landscape look like? If a Microsoft-Yahoo! merger really is aimed at taming Googleís dominance of online search and services, how will the average Netizenís surfing habits change? Maybe a little, maybe a lot.

First, I wouldnít worry about your e-mail address. When Microsoft bought Hotmail in 1997, users of the free service didnít suddenly have ď@msn.comĒ at the end of their e-mail addresses. Millions of Yahoo! Mail users would probably storm Microsoft headquarters if they all had to notify their friends, families and spam senders that their addresses were changing. Besides, there are likely to be quite a few user names that are duplicated between the two companiesí services, so merging hippojaq@yahoo.com, hippojaq@msn.com and hippojaq@hotmail.com, which may or may not all be the same person, would be much more hassle than itís worth. The same goes for the companiesí two instant messengers, which are already interoperable.

On the other hand, there is precedent for scrapping old branding. In 2002, Microsoft bought a company called Vicinity, which ran a Web site called MapBlast ó your standard driving directions site. Microsoft quickly shoved Vicinityís technology and features behind its own pre-existing MapPoint name. Yahoo! Maps could suffer the same fate.

Each company has such a long list of services, though, that itís hard to imagine either branding just disappearing. Pull up Yahoo.com or MSN.com and see for yourself: right on their home pages, both sites advertise instant messaging, personals, movie listings, yellow pages, job boards and a plethora of other stuff. None of that will go away; realistically, both sites will have to remain up to capitalize on existing users, but individual services might consolidate under one or the other banner.

Take HotJobs, Yahoo!ís job search. It had a long and well-known life before being acquired by Yahoo!, so being tied to one or the other brand isnít that important. Each company serves up news stories, but Microsoftís link to the TV news world through MSNBC can bring more gravitas to Yahoo!ís coverage.

What will really change for you, the user, is that your choice will no longer be between Google and those other guys, but between Google, MSYahoo! (or whatever itíll be called) and those really tiny other guys. Google started out as a streamlined startup that did one thing ó search ó incredibly well, but itís ballooned into many of the same services other Web portals offer.

What really has Microsoft worried is Googleís Apps section, including editing tools for word processing and spreadsheet documents. Microsoft has plenty of competition in that arena already, from Corelís WordPerfect and the free, open source OpenOffice.org to dozens of lesser-known office suites, but Googleís offering is unique in that itís all accessed online. The applications are online and your documents are stored in an online account. Hardcore business users who need more features can pay $50 a year for an account, but most users can access everything for free.

What Yahoo! really offers Microsoft isnít innovative technology, but a user base and penetration that will let Microsoft peddle its own online applications to a wider audience. The software giant has been trying to migrate from purchased CDs to subscription software for ages now, and this might be just the kick they need.