Yahoo Acquires OnTheAir, Betting Big on Mobile

Ever since former Googler Marissa Mayer took the reins at Yahoo, observers have been speculating about the venerable but beleaguered search engine’s new direction. A look at the company’s first two purchases since the new CEO came aboard seems to indicate a big bet on mobile apps.

Let’s take a quick step back in time to late October of this year. That’s when Mayer made her first acquisition since arriving at Yahoo. The purchased company, named Stamped, produced a recommendations app by the same name. James Niccolai, reporting on the story for CFO World, noted that the app was developed by former Google employees and had even received financial support from Google Ventures. Mayer visited Stamped shortly after the purchase and tweeted that she was “happy to be reunited with Robby and his team.”

Stamped was an iPhone app that I like to think of as an “external memory.” It let users keep track of restaurants, books, movies, and other things they like, and let their friends know about them. I say “was” because at the time of the purchase, Stamped reported that it would be discontinuing the product at the end of the  year. Users can download a PDF copy of their data. Niccolai noted in his article that they were planning to build a “big, mobile, and new” app for Yahoo, but didn’t supply details.

Yesterday, Yahoo made its second acquisition since Mayer became CEO: a video chat start-up named OnTheAir. John Ribeiro, reporting the story for the IDG News service, noted that “Yahoo sources said the acquisition was for talent, and that the OnTheAir product will not be continued.” Four of OnTheAir’s five-member team hold degrees from Stanford, the same college from which Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (and Marissa Mayer, for that matter) graduated. The remaining member of the team, according to his bio, held an interesting job before joining OnTheAir: he worked at Google on infrastructure that supports Gmail and Google+.

Perhaps it’s too soon to call it a pattern, but the similarities between these two purchases can’t be ignored. Mayer acquired two companies that included former Google employees; both firms worked on creating useful mobile applications; and both acquisitions focused on gaining the talent as opposed to the company’s actual products. Clearly, Mayer thinks Yahoo’s future involves making mobile apps.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who was paying attention when Mayer participated in her first earnings conference call since accepting the position of Yahoo CEO. Juan Carlos Perez, reporting on the call for Computerworld, highlighted her interest in the mobile field, and her desire for Yahoo to do more, and better, in this area. “We’ve made progress, but Yahoo hasn’t capitalized on the mobile opportunity,” she said; Perez noted that she felt “it has ‘underinvested’ in its mobile front-end development.”

Furthermore, according to Perez, Mayer believed that Yahoo’s “mobile product lineup is too fragmented, with more than 76 different iOS and Android applications. ‘Our top priority is a focused, coherent mobile strategy,’ Mayer said. This will involve a significant beefing up of the company’s mobile staff.” Clearly, Yahoo took two steps in that direction by purchasing Stamped and OnTheAir.

So what are the next steps? It’s possible that Mayer will acquire one more company that fits the pattern before the end of this year, but I don’t rank that as a high probability. Rather, I expect this month to be devoted to the new guys settling in and brainstorming, with Mayer dropping some hints (to them, not us, alas) as to where she’d like to see Yahoo’s mobile apps going.

Where, exactly, is that? Count on it not being games, at least not right away (if ever). My guess is that she wants to see these mobile apps fit together in a coherent package, but continue to be useful as standalone applications. I wouldn’t be surprised if Yahoo comes up with something reminiscent of the iPad’s or Windows 8′s approach – done much better.

On the other hand, I don’t see Yahoo getting into its own hardware. I could see them creating custom mobile app packages for specific devices, and working with the manufacturers to install them on smartphones and tablets. It’s also entirely possible that this time next year, we’ll see at least three versions of some impressive Yahoo mobile apps: one for Android, one for Apple’s App Store, and one for Microsoft’s app store. It’s worth noting, at this point, that Yahoo has almost all the pieces it needs among its various products and purchases to build its own full-service computer software package; about the only thing missing is its own web browser. Or it could easily bring all these services together to build a better social site than Facebook (though the less said about Yahoo Groups, the better). We’ll just have to wait and see what Mayer and company cooks up at Yahoo, now that there are some more veteran chefs in the kitchen.

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