After Facing Shareholders, Yang Must Fulfill Promises

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang will face a tough crowd at Friday's shareholders meeting, but the expected tongue-lashing is likely the least of his worries as he stares at the towering list of promises he has made and must fulfill.

Since replacing former CEO Terry Semel in mid-2007, Yang has been assuring employees, partners, external developers, publishers, advertisers and online-service consumers that he has a foolproof plan to get Yahoo back on track financially and technologically.

For shareholders, the problem with Yang's rhetoric is that when he took over from Semel, Yahoo's stock price was in the US$27 to $28 range. On Thursday, it closed at $19.89, far from the $33 per share Microsoft offered before negotiations collapsed in early May, and very close to the $19.18 price on Jan. 31, the day prior to the bid's announcement.

"There is a lot of anger and discontent among shareholders. It will be lively tomorrow," said IDC analyst Karsten Weide in a phone interview.

Activist investor Eric Jackson, president of Ironfire Capital, plans to attend and get vocal at San Jose's Fairmont Hotel, and is encouraging others to do the same. "[The meeting] will be an opportunity for us to speak up and make our voices heard. If you're in the Bay Area, I encourage you to come out ... Hopefully, we'll have a lively set of questions posed to the Yahoo board in a true direct fashion," Jackson wrote on his blog Monday.

While Friday's meeting will give shareholders a soapbox to vent frustrations, the event is also of significance to Yahoo end-users, advertisers, publishers, partners and developers who are trusting that Yang and his team will deliver the promised goods.

With Microsoft no longer circling the waters and having appeased Carl Icahn -- who wanted to kick out the entire board and boot Yang from the CEO throne -- Yahoo's management now has no excuse for the company's underperformance.

After all, at Friday's meeting, despite the likely sound and fury from the floor, the current board will retain a solid majority -- eight members -- as part of an agreement that grants seats to Icahn and two of his candidates. This leaves Yang and his team on much more solid job-security ground.

Or maybe not. Industry analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group wouldn't be surprised if top management changes are announced at the meeting or shortly afterward, involving either the replacement of Yang as CEO or the addition of a new executive in a prominent role, possibly former AOL CEO Jonathan Miller, a candidate for an Icahn seat.

The mere fact that Icahn will have a say in Yahoo's operations assures changes will be made to current plans and strategies, so people and organizations tied to Yahoo services would do well to pay attention to what transpires at the meeting, especially discussions about possibly changed plans and strategies, Enderle said.

After Microsoft made its bid, Yahoo went into a hyperactive mode with product and strategy announcements, seemingly to prove that it was worth more than Microsoft was willing to pay and also able to survive independently. It's likely that that list of projects will be pared down, according to Enderle. "I don't think they'll be able to execute on all of them," he said.

Probably the most ambitious project is Yahoo Open Strategy (Y OS), which promises end-users and developers alike a major revamping of how they will respectively use and develop applications for Yahoo online services. It's generally agreed that if the Y OS vision is fully realized, it could give Yahoo a significant and long-needed boost in key areas like search and social networking.

Announced in April to great fanfare, Y OS calls for Yahoo to open all its sites, online services and Web applications to outside developers, and give users a "social profile" dashboard to unify and manage their Yahoo services. To accomplish this, officials recognize that it will be necessary to rewire Yahoo's technology back-end inside and out -- no small feat.

"It's a cool, bold, visionary project, but it will be hard to do," Weide said. "The question is: Can Yahoo pull it off?"

Another big project in the works, this one aimed at advertisers, is AMP, a new advertising management platform that the company says will greatly simplify buying and selling ads online, and -- Yahoo promises -- provide laser-like ability to target audiences.

In June, when it announced its latest of several major reorganizations in the past two years, Yahoo shocked observers with the creation of a Cloud Computing and Data Infrastructure Group, which many have speculated is a sign Yahoo plans to get into the hosted software and IT infrastructure services markets.

In addition, Yahoo has ongoing projects to continually improve its mobile services, its franchise e-mail and instant messaging products, and Panama, its much-touted search advertising platform whose efficacy fell into doubt when Yahoo recently agreed to outsource part of its search ad business to Google in order to jump-start those segment revenues.

In addition, during Microsoft's pursuit, Yahoo also acquired online video player Maven Networks, announced its social network OneConnect mobile service, re-launched its video site and introduced social news site Yahoo Buzz.

So on Friday, while shareholders hurl verbal rotten tomatoes at Yang, President Sue Decker and the other top managers, end-users, developers, publishers and advertisers should be watching, looking for signs that their promises will be fulfilled.

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