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Microsoft's shadow looms over Yahoo's new CEO

Thu, 01/15/2009 - 7:10am
Michael Liedtke, AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Brandishing a disdain for things that aren't working, Carol Bartz clearly intends to shake up Yahoo Inc. as the new chief executive of the long-slumping Internet company.

The guessing game now revolves around whether Bartz will do something evolutionary, such as trimming the payroll even further, or something more revolutionary, such as turning over Yahoo's search operations to rival Microsoft Corp.

Carol Bartz
Carol Bartz

Most analysts are betting that Bartz's appointment, following a two-month search to replace Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, will be the catalyst that brings Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer back to the bargaining table since Yahoo rejected his last bid for its search engine in July.

"I won't be surprised if a search deal gets done within the next few weeks," Collins Stewart analyst Sandeep Aggarwal said Wednesday. He believes Bartz could lift Yahoo's downtrodden stock price by as much as $10 by locking up billions of dollars in guaranteed ad revenue in exchange for turning over its search operations to Microsoft.

Shedding search also would enable Bartz to decrease Yahoo's annual expenses by about $700 million, Aggarwal estimates.

In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Ballmer reiterated his interest in Yahoo's search operations as he tries to undercut Internet advertising leader Google Inc.

But Ballmer didn't seem interested in renewing the talks until Yang was out of the way. He and Yang clashed last year when Microsoft was still trying to swallow Yahoo whole in a $47.5 billion acquisition. Ballmer angrily withdrew that $33 a share offer last May after Yang demanded more, much to the dismay of Yahoo's shareholders.

Investors seemed to be feeling a little better about Yahoo now that the tough-minded Bartz will be calling the shots. Yahoo shares gained 31 cents, or 2.6 percent, to close at $12.41 on a bad day in the overall stock market.

Bartz, 60, declined to outline her plans for Yahoo during a Tuesday conference call held shortly after the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company named her as its CEO. She promised to fill a void at Yahoo by being a decisive leader.

"This is not about some little vision I have," Bartz said Tuesday. "This is a big vision for a big, great company." She was unavailable for interviews Wednesday as she met with Yahoo's employees and customers.

Other bold moves that Bartz could make include buying AOL from Time Warner Inc. or spinning off Yahoo's Asian assets.

A combination with AOL has been bandied about for months with no resolution, largely because the two sides have had trouble settling on a price that makes sense for both sides. And the depressed financial markets probably make this an inopportune time for Yahoo to dispose of its Asian holdings.

Those factors mean Bartz's first pivotal choice will be determining whether to deal with Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft.

Not everyone believes Yahoo will be better off if it hands over its search engine to the software maker because advertising sold alongside search results remain the most lucrative business on the Internet.

Yahoo's search engine remains the second-most popular on the Web after Google. Bartz could still mine Yahoo's search technology to steer a turnaround, said IDC analyst Karsten Weide said.

"If you are going to build a successful media company, you have to see what makes money today and what is still going to be making money five years from now," he said. "You can't just hand (search) over to someone else and hope for the best. It would make them too dependent on Microsoft."

While Yang was still CEO, Yahoo worked out a search advertising partnership with Google, but that arrangement fell apart in November under the threat of an antitrust lawsuit from the U.S. Justice Department.

A seasoned technologist, Bartz comes to Yahoo with a history of weeding out ineptitude and sharpening the focus on the most prosperous parts of the business. She left her most enduring mark at Autodesk Inc., a San Rafael, Calif.-based software maker whose stock price soared tenfold during her reign as CEO from 1992 to 2006.

Although she has been successful wherever she has worked, Bartz's lack of experience in the Internet and advertising industries has raised some doubts about whether she is the right person to run Yahoo.

"She is going to have to prove she can quickly adapt to an environment that is completely different from her experience any place else," said Neil Sims, managing director for the technology group of Boyden, an executive search firm.

Bartz labeled those concerns as "nonsense," and most analysts seem to think her business savvy will more than make up for her media naivete. Yahoo still could bring in another top executive with a strong advertising background because its current president, Susan Decker, plans to leave after being passed over for the top job.

Perhaps most important to investors, Bartz won't be carrying any emotional baggage as she draws up her blueprints for Yahoo. That's a huge advantage over Yang, whose affinity for the Web site he started as a graduate student in 1994 was viewed as a stumbling block to last year's talks with Microsoft.

Since Yang launched Yahoo as a simple Internet directory, the company has grown into a mishmash of products that has confused investors, employees, advertisers and consumers.

If nothing else, Sims thinks Bartz's fresh perspective should help Yahoo figure out what it does best and then marshal its resources there.

"Any company that can't define itself to the public in seven to nine words has a problem," Sims said. "Yahoo has had that problem for some time now."

AP Technology Writer Jessica Mintz contributed to this report.

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