Strings Attached: Marissa Mayer And The Mobile Challenge At Yahoo

Yahoo’s surprise scoop of Marissa Mayer as its newest CEO has unleashed a lot of positive comments about how this represents a new day, and a refreshing risk, for the beleaguered Internet brand. It will improve morale inside the company, and will give it more credibility outside. And it looks like it will also mean a new direction for Yahoo, with a much stronger focus on product — a word mentioned 19 times, by Mayer and others, in the official release confirming her appointment — away from, I suppose, media and content. That, of course, could mean a million different things — which, actually, is part of the problem at Yahoo. But one of them could be — it really should be — mobile.

This an area where Yahoo was once very aggressive but has really dropped the ball (or phone as the case may be….).

A little history

Before Google had released their first Android devices, and before Apple had released the iPhone, Yahoo was in the thick of it. Early on, it “got” the idea that mobile would be a key way for consumers to go online, and so if they wanted to them to stay with Yahoo — namely so that those users could continue to be advertising targets, but also potential customers of paid Yahoo services — it had to be there, too.

So with its Connected Life division, in 2007, Yahoo launched a mobile web portal it called Yahoo! Go, along with a number of other products like mobile-web optimized local search, email and other mobile web services aimed at ways of optimizing content for small screens. Yahoo was signing deals with handset makers like LG (a world leader at the time) to preload these onto tens of millions of devices. It was launching new mobile display ad units, and deals with big brands to use them. And it had lucrative partnerships with mobile operators, just starting to get into the data game, to provide search functions on their own portals.

It seems crazy to look at Yahoo now and think of what it once could have and tried to do. It turned out that a lot of that may have been too far ahead of its time, maybe an example of when you might be too early as an early mover. The devices were not good enough, nor were the networks. (And maybe the services as well.)

Not too long after that, and spurred by the iPhone, Google invested in and came out with products much more compelling that took over the mobile experience altogether, with Android, its full operating platform for the new generation of smartphones that were hitting the market. Microsoft did as well, with Windows Mobile and the Windows Phone, although those endeavors have proved a lot less successful. Times got more challenging, and Yahoo didn’t stick with it.

Then, later, when it became clear that apps were the key to smartphone users’ hearts, Yahoo tried to make a push there, too. Yes, there are some apps that have worked — Yahoo Sports, Mail, Messenger and Flickr are still around — but there have been a lot thrown by the wayside. Most recently, at the end of May, the company killed Livestand, a six-month-old Flipboard-like magazine aggregation tablet app, as it continues to “scrutinize what’s working and what isn’t.”

It’s the exact canned phrase Yahoo used earlier in the year, when it canned 10 other apps: Yahoo! Meme (iPad and iPhone); Yahoo! Mim (iPad); Yahoo! Answers (Android); Yahoo! AppSpot (Android and iPhone); Yahoo! Deals (iPhone); Yahoo! Finance (BlackBerry); Yahoo! Movies (Android); Yahoo! News (Android); Yahoo! Shopping (iPhone) and Yahoo! Sketch-a-Search (iPad and iPhone).

Ironically at that time it said it would continue to support Livestand, as well as a GetGlue-type check-in app called IntoNow. I wonder if the clock is now ticking on IntoNow, too.

And today

Mobile, as we said above, is an area where Yahoo’s competitors Google and Microsoft have been pushing very hard. And where sort-of competitor Apple has been making a killing with its iPhone and iPad devices, and taking eyeballs for advertising and other services along with it.

Mayer’s biggest achievements at Google may have not have been on the Android team. Her last, most visible role, was overseeing local and maps, putting her squarely in the mobile product sphere.

That could give her a taste for trying to tackle mobile again at Yahoo. But if she does it will be a major task. She will need to figure out where Yahoo can best fit, and how to best use the medium to grow Yahoo’s overall core business of advertising (unless she’s really zooming out and thinking of whole new lines of business). But also she will need to effectively rehire a lot of people to help with that, because along the way the company’s lost a lot of mobile talent as well.

But there are some super encouraging signs that it’s not too late for Yahoo to do something in mobile. For one, countries like the U.S. are still only at 50 percent smartphone penetration. That means many millions of consumers to play for and capture with your products. Going outside of mature markets, the opportunity is even bigger.

Look at what’s happening in countries like China, where Baidu and many others have decided to become mobile players to tap into that hugely expanding market. You can see that development doesn’t have to take years and years in the current climate, where you can, for example, create forked operating systems on existing platforms. And there are even others out there — hi, Jolla — who are ready and willing to try their hand at being a platform for a new big player.


It’s a little funny to mention Nokia here. Something else that’s been on my mind has been the comparison of Nokia hiring Stephen Elop, ex-Microsoft, as CEO there. Many have called him a Trojan horse, who has been put in place simply to ease the transition of the Finnish handset giant to Microsoft. I’m not totally sure I’d believe that until I see it happening. But it’s an interesting idea to ponder whether getting Mayer in to Yahoo might usher in a closer collaboration with Google, specifically on the mobile front.

There will surely be a lot of speculation in the weeks ahead for what may come, and go, with Mayer’s arrival. Post yesterday’s news, I noticed a number of people tweeting into the wilderness about the need to revive photo sharing service Flickr, for instance.

And here’s another example from left field: we’ve had an anonymous tip, completely unconfirmed at this point, that one of the product divisions that will be getting the chop will be the Small Business division, which offers a wide range of services from domain registration and hosting to business email, e-commerce back-end services and a marketing dashboard. This is a division, by the way, that Yahoo had hoped to sell back in 2009 for $500 million, but that never came to pass. Also, it would make sense, given that it’s also parted companies with another enterprise product, Zimbra, which it sold to VMWare in 2010. (Do let us know if you have intel on that one btw.)

[Image: Dano, Flickr…of course]