Friday, December 19, 2008

Four dying SV companies

On Sunday, Chris O’Brien of the Merc wrote about four dying Silicon Valley icons. For some reason, it wasn’t posted to the website Sunday or Monday, but it’s there now. He aptly summarizes the problems of three of these companies, and I recommend anyone interested in innovation (or the Valley) to read the analysis.

In my reading, two of the companies are (effectively) single-product companies where their product is no longer compelling and increasingly no longer competitive. AMD once was threatening Intel on the performance front, and now they are asset stripping in hopes of raising enough cash to stay alive. Palm created the pen-based PDA and for a while was a leader in smartphones, but their Treo remakes have long since run out of steam and their last Hail Mary wasted precious time and money.

The other two companies are diversified systems companies which were built around the idea of integration and economies of scope. Their stories diverge somewhat, in that Sun Microsystems was the dominant firm in a category that’s been dying since the end of the dot-com era, while Yahoo is #2 in a category that’s still very much alive.

Still, there are important parallels. Sun has been cutting its way to greatness for years, and is still floundering in search of a strategy that will somehow make up for its loss of a raison d’être in a world of commodity Linux boxes. (Thank you, Intel).

Yahoo has only recent begun to emulate Sun by cutting its way to greatness — with cuts of 7% in February (announced in January) and 10% earlier this month announced back in October. Even their cutting is not being done well: pre-announcing them makes it like a water torture, and they are also cutting staff from its winners and not just deadweight.

However, Yahoo has been floundering for as long as Sun — ever since it hired Terry Semel back in 2001. Semel was cast off in 2007, but his successor hasn’t done any better.

O’Brien puts Yahoo in a separate category, because he thinks they will do a deal in Microsoft in 2009 that will pull them out of a tailspin. But I think Yahoo’s problems are systemic, and even if they make nice with Microsoft, that won’t substitute for a lack of a winning strategy.

So will Yahoo die in 2009? No, but neither will Sun: it has enough inertia (through enterprise sales contracts) to keep limping along for another decade or more, as did DEC and Unisys and Cray and SGI and all the other computer systems also-rans.

Still, if Yahoo doesn’t get a better CEO and better strategy, all its point successes (like Flickr and mobile) will be for naught.

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