Microsoft and Yahoo! No deal
May 8th 2008 | SAN FRANCISCO
From The Economist print edition
Microsoft walks away from Yahoo!, and both companies lose
RATHER as John McCain cannot be displeased to have seen Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fighting it out, Google has for the past three months enjoyed watching its only two serious rivals, Yahoo! and Microsoft, tear each other to pieces. Yahoo!, once an internet pioneer, has fallen far behind Google in web search and related advertising. Microsoft still dominates desktop computing but lags behind Google as software moves online. So Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's boss, dared ask Yahoo!: what would be wrong with making, if not exactly a dream team, at least a joint effort out of it?
But on May 3rd, after a frustrating marathon of meetings, Mr Ballmer walked away. He had raised his offer for Yahoo! from an initial $44.6 billion on January 31st to about $47.5 billion, some 70% more than Yahoo!'s value at the time of the opening bid. Jerry Yang, Yahoo!'s co-founder and boss, wanted at least $5 billion more. Mr Ballmer wrote him a bitter letter saying that “you and your stockholders have left significant value on the table.” Wall Street's verdict, on May 5th, was to cut Yahoo!'s value to $34 billion.
That the sell-off was not even worse primarily reflects the possibility that a deal may yet happen. Another software company, Oracle, recently dropped a bid for a smaller rival, BEA Systems, after its board rejected the offer, but eventually had its way after BEA's angry shareholders forced their board back into negotiations and a sale. Mr Ballmer's farewell letter to Yahoo!, by recapitulating the negotiations in all their embarrassing detail, provides just the sort of fodder for Yahoo!'s investors to order Mr Yang to resume talks.
Mr Ballmer took particular pains to criticise Yahoo!'s readiness to “make Yahoo! undesirable as an acquisition for Microsoft.” By this he means Mr Yang's apparent plan to outsource Yahoo!'s search-advertising technology to, of all people, Google. In a purely mathematical sense, this could indeed make Yahoo! somewhat more valuable. Google is better than Yahoo! or Microsoft at placing relevant ads next to search results and collects more in revenue for each resulting mouse click.
Yet it is a bizarre tactic. The history of Yahoo! during this decade is of trying, failing, and trying again to catch up with Google in search advertising. Its first big failure was not to bid high enough to buy Google outright. Its next attempt, in 2003, was to buy Overture, the company that pioneered search advertising, but by then Google was pulling ahead. An outsourcing deal with Google was considered and rejected. For the past two years Yahoo! has invested oodles in a project called Panama that was meant, again, to catch Google.
Presumably Yahoo! has been exerting itself so because it believes that the advertising technology is, along with search, the source of competitive advantage in the internet era. That is certainly what Microsoft believes, which is why it bought aQuantive, an online-advertising specialist, and built its own search-ads platform, called adCenter. What Yahoo! and Microsoft lack is volume—in the number of both searches and advertisers bidding to place ads. Teaming up would help to address that problem; but a capitulation by Yahoo! to Google would merely invite antitrust regulators to look at Google's dominance.
Mr Yang could merge Yahoo! with AOL, the web portal of Time Warner, but AOL already outsources its search ads to Google and would be no help at all in catching the leader. Asserting, as Mr Yang does, that Yahoo! all by itself could become “the starting point” on the internet, and its advertising powerhouse, rings hollow.
Things look just as bleak for Mr Ballmer. He has invested billions trying to make Microsoft an internet and advertising superpower. But it seems not to matter. According to Danny Sullivan, a web-search analyst, Microsoft “literally has no brand” when it comes to its online services—nobody has ever been advised “to Live” or “to MSN” a recipe or a cute classmate. The only one having any fun continues to be Google.