By Harry McCracken | Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 9:34 am
I’m attending the Web 2.0 Summit conference here in San Francisco this week. We may be in the middle of a downturn, but you couldn’t tell it from the number of bodies (most of who paid around $4000 for a ticket) on the floor here: The event is a crowded success, with a standing-room only ballroom full of attendees and two overflow rooms. (Of course, conferences may be a lagging indicator of the tech industry’s health–most of these folks probably bought their tickets months ago, when the economy still had a pulse.)
So far, the talk of the conference seems to be conference host John Battelle’s interview with Lance Armstrong. Which I won’t discuss here, since it didn’t have a whole lot to do with the Web (even Armstrong’s own LiveStrong.com and LiveStrong.org came up only briefly). But John’s interview with Yahoo cofounder and CEO Jerry Yang is a close number two–for all the wrong reasons.
I want Yang to flourish at Yahoo, and I want Yahoo itself to flourish. He’s the guy who started the company with David Filo out of a trailer at Stanford University in 1994. Later that year, Yahoo became the first site I ever visited–and I’ll bet it’s been the first site for millions of other people over the past decade and a half. It’s an important Web company and the custodian of some great services such as Flickr.
Which is why Yang’s appearance was so dispiriting. It’s not just that he wasn’t able to articulate a clear vision for what Yahoo wants to be–although he didn’t. He also said that he best outcome for Yahoo would be for it to be swallowed up by Microsoft; it’s just that Microsoft never made an adequate offer. That’s a discouraging thing to hear from the person who’s the living representation of the Yahoo spirit, It’s also hard to reconcile with the fact that Microsoft reportedly offered $33 a share for Yahoo back in the spring. (As I write, those shares are now worth $14.20 apiece.)
My heart is with Yahoo staying independent and doing cool things on its own, but if Yang really thinks a Microsoft deal makes sense and yet turned down one that would have represented well over a 100% premium over the company’s current stock price, it’s a colossal failing on his part.
My colleague Ed Oswald has called for Yang’s ouster. I’m not a Yahoo stockholder or a financial analyst. More important, I’m a softie. And a Yahoo user who simply wants the site to be good and doesn’t much care how it gets there.
So I’m not demanding that Jerry Yang leave Yahoo. (In fact, I’d be tickled if he stuck it out, turned Yahoo around, and made his critics–including, well, me–eat their words.) But it’s hard to imagine him bouncing back–or Yahoo bouncing back with him in charge. And his Web 2.0 appearance did nothing to change that impression.