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What the hell happened to Yahoo! Messenger?

By Michael Smith, chief product officer at Spuul and former director of global tech initiatives at Yahoo!. Republished with permission from his blog.


Watching and reading all this stuff happening around chat, games and platforms reminds me of my final, unfinished project, at Yahoo!.

I will admit I don’t use WhatsApp – I just think it is a shitty app but it looks like some people use it. I do use Path cause all my family and most of my close friends use it – therefore it is a nice way to stay in touch, post pics and share what we are all up to. I don’t add many people to Path to keep it simple and useful. Their new chat stuff is okay but still too slow and not super chat friendly. However I think they are moving in an interesting direction that will bear fruit in Asia but not sure everywhere else.

My girlfriend invited me to Line and we use it for chat sometimes and I have been checking out the games – mostly to examine the viral mechanics and such. Line is killing it.

All in all there is much activity in the chat arena. New MessageMe (TiA calling MessageMe a copycat is somewhat comical but that is fodder for anotherpost) on the block, Google with Babble and I am sure there are many other examples. For some reason the space is hot and it has products like Line with huge user bases and what I am guessing is also a decent amount of revenue.

So what the hell happened with Yahoo! Messenger? A decent product that Yahoo! let languish. A product that had near monopolies in some countries that continue to dwindle year on year. To all my friends at Yahoo! and to those working on the messenger stack – I am not calling you out but chastising the inept management teams who let a once monster product get crushed by competitors.

Yahoo! Messenger missed mobile, viral mechanics, gaming, and the ability to translate old skool domination into anything new or modern.


At one point in Yahoo! I somehow got pulled into the messenger product space and was stoked. My current boss was being bugged by Jerry Yang – yeah that Jerry — to try and do something with it. My idea, not novel in any way, was to try and use the messenger ecosystem to add games, credits and chat all into one. Kind of looks like a few products you see killing it today.

Yahoo! had a nice big, but not nimble, messaging backend. We had clients on various operating systems and we had payment platforms. We also had games and even a technology to frame up partner games into the chat apps for the desktop. Mobile was going to be much harder but doable.

So chat, games, credits and users. Seems doable.

Problem is with a visionless company the size of Yahoo! – these types of projects just get turned into a big bureaucratic mess.

The team pulled together a quick hail mary plan and I was told to go pitch Jerry. Of course Jerry was late to the meeting and by the time he came to the Jerry waiting room my boss was already off on a plane. So I was to meet Jerry for the first time, pitch him and pray.

Of course Jerry has no idea who the fuck I was but fortunately the ex-Yahoos I knew were also known by Jerry so quickly we established some common ground and Jerry let me pitch. Of course he was skeptical but wanted us to try. So we flew around the world to kiss all the regional exec rings, yes that is how it works at Yahoo!, and then we came back to Sunnyvale to try and make it work.

BTW – working with Jerry is one of my most memorable experiences.

It took months to herd the cats, find partners and come up with a plan that allowed us to ship something that would work even though as an entire product stack it would need a lot of evolution. The goal was to get something working so that the CEO staff group, yes that is a group of people who surround the CEO like a moat to keep the bad shit in and prevent the good shit from penetrating the CEO castle.

Or was it the other way around? I forget, to be honest.

Anyway – Jerry presented at CEO staff and the idea was blocked by powers that be that previously bought the idea but wanted to somehow kill the idea so they could line up with someone else for another idea. Game of Thrones folks. Little people get burned at these things.

Anyway the region that killed it was the region that would benefit the most from it. The region that chat is exploding in. Go figure. Logic has no bearing at this level.

So needless to say the project died and I moved on.

What I learned is it is really hard to take disparate assets at a big company and pull them together. Each asset owner wants to call the shots – even to the detriment of the combined assets. I think Yahoo! could have actually acquired something that had a similar outcome and it would probably have been able to make it all happen faster.

Which seems so illogical but is how big companies actually work. Stunning really since Yahoo! has the pieces, a big enough user base and interesting partners but there is no wherewithal to actually force an outcome.

So chat is hot again. Yahoo! is cold on chat. Such a bummer.

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