Saturday, July 14, 2007

Yahoo! Continues Its Death Spiral

Yeah, I know - melodramatic title. People have been predicting the demise of Yahoo! for over a decade now, typically without much success. Still, there's something about the company's behavior over the past couple of years which makes me think Yahoo!'s days - at least as a dominant player on the Web - are numbered.

For starters, Yahoo! is barely treading water in their core search business, while Google continues to grow rapidly. At the moment Google's growth is apparently coming at the expense of rivals other than Yahoo! (witness Microsoft's market share decline), but sooner or later Google's going to have to target Yahoo! directly if they want to continue to grow. Since each 1% of the search market is worth about a billion dollars in revenue according to what I've read online, that gives Google a massive incentive to fight it out with Yahoo! for every percentage of the search market they can gobble.

Yahoo! does own Flickr now, which has a great image search engine, but so far at least that engine hasn't been integrated with Yahoo!'s standard image search. Flickr certainly isn't positioned as strongly in the image space as Google's YouTube is positioned in the video space. Yahoo! also purchased eGroups back in 1999, an early web pioneer in what we'd now probably call social networking, but then allowed the property to languish for almost 5 years, giving time for the rise and eventual dominance of MySpace. Yahoo! actually had a lot of the pieces in place to become a social networking powerhouse, including its own Photos and its IM client, but their Yahoo 360 service didn't launch until 2005, by which time MySpace had already been around for a couple of years and had been purchased by News Corp.

With an also-ran search engine and an also-ran social networking site under their belt, Yahoo! is hardly well-positioned for the future. And they continue to make bizarre moves, some of them totally customer-hostile. Their latest is the forced Bataan Upgrade March of users off of the Musicmatch Jukebox application to the (vastly inferior, advertising laden) Yahoo! Music Jukebox (formerly called the Yahoo! Music Engine).

I actually used Musicmatch Jukebox as my primary music player for a couple of years, from 2003 into 2005. I'd purchased a cd3o wireless media receiver, one of the first devices of its kind, and I was using it to stream audio from my PC in the bedroom to my stereo in the living room. With the drop in hard drive prices, it became feasible to rip my CD collection and store it as .WAV files. The cd3o depended upon file tags, and at the time the only lossless format it supported was .WAV. The cd3o could only read the .WAV tags made by Musicmatch Jukebox, so I ended up ripping my entire library to .WAV files using MMJB.

I was never entirely happy with MMJB - the interface had its good points and its bad points, and it was buggy and slow - but the version I used had worked out most of the bugs with CD ripping and supported decent error correction, at least allowing me to get clean rips. MMJB also made it ridiculously easy to batch edit tags on huge groups of files and to move and rename files as desired (in fact it's still far ahead of iTunes or Windows Media Player in this regard). There were regular upgrades being released as well, and although these were frequently buggy at least there was hope that the program would continue to improve.

Then Yahoo! bought Musicmatch. Within a few months it was apparent MMJB had become fossilware, and that Yahoo! was going to concentrate their development efforts on their own vastly inferior Yahoo Music Engine, a primitive music player even by 1995's standards, let alone 2005's.

By this point
cd3o itself seemed to be on its last legs as a company and was no longer supporting their product. Meanwhile, I'd grown tired of gobbling up close to 300GB of drive space to store my library uncompressed. I bought a Linksys wireless media receiver to replace the cd3o. The Linksys worked a little differently - it just streamed the audio output of your computer to your stereo. It didn't offer a remote control like the cd3o's, but that was OK in my new apartment since the PC is in the same large room as the stereo. Since the media receiver was no longer decoding any audio files, I was free to use lossless compression (I chose FLAC) and whatever software on my PC I wanted for playback.

There was one little problem, though - all of those tagged .WAV files created by Musicmatch Jukebox. Musicmatch didn't support any lossless compression formats, so I couldn't use it to convert my files, and none of the other packages out there (including Yahoo!'s own Music Engine) supported Musicmatch's oddball .WAV tags. I sent a few pleading e-mails to Yahoo! Music Engine's developers, along with a few other users, asking them to at least support reading Musicmatch's funky .WAV tags, but we never received any reply. I started to contemplate re-ripping my entire library in some other program, and then going through the arduous process of fixing all of the metadata all over again. Ugh.

I was finally able to convince the developers of a rival media player called MediaMonkey to support reading MMJB .WAV tags, in conjunction with a few other users fleeing Yahoo!'s latest display of incompetence. Since MediaMonkey also supports file format conversion, I was then able to convert my 300GB library of .WAV files to a 150GB library of FLAC files with literally just a couple of mouse clicks, freeing up a hard disc in the process and making my files fully compatible with at least half a dozen other media players. MediaMonkey is so vastly superior to either Musicmatch or Yahoo!'s lame Jukebox it's positively embarrassing. In fact it makes iTunes and Windows Media Player look pretty pathetic as well.

This anecdote is emblematic of what's wrong with Yahoo! - they're sort of King Midas in reverse. They purchased Musicmatch, then stopped updating Musicmatch's flawed but popular and feature-rich Jukebox in favor of their own vastly inferior, in-house developed Music Engine. They couldn't even be bothered to get their Music Engine to support custom Musicmatch features, like its oddball .WAV tags, that tiny third party developers like Ventis Media (the guys behind MediaMonkey) were able to support within weeks of receiving the request. Pathetic. Yahoo! essentially paid tens of millions of dollars to piss off and subsequently lose most of Musicmatch's customers, including folks who'd paid $50 for a "lifetime" license to MMJB.

This is precisely the kind of customer hostile behavior that dot bomb companies like RealNetworks exhibited just before they imploded. Right now this is only a small example from Yahoo!'s backwaters, but I think it's indicative of the kind of cluelessness and laziness which seems to predominate at Yahoo! these days, and it certainly doesn't inspire confidence in their ability to rally against rivals like Google and MySpace.