Fast Company

What Yahoo Founder Jerry Yang Should've Learned From Firefox In 2005

Former Mozilla CEO John Lilly watched Jerry Yang blow his top when presented with a browser that put a Yahoo competitor front and center. Seven years later, Yahoo finally got around to launching a browser of its own.

Last night, Yahoo unveiled Axis, its first foray into the browser wars. The once-glorious Internet company, which has struggled to define its identity, stabilize its management, and revive its reputation, is trying to prove it's still relevant. So it doesn't exactly help that Yahoo is arriving years late to a space already dominated by Mozilla, Microsoft, Google, and Apple.

Yahoo's delayed entry into the browser field is indicative of the larger problems that have plagued the company for years: a lack of product innovation and foresight. Apple, Google, and the other players realized years ago how important browsers would become for their prowess on the web--not just as a tool to keep users hooked on their own products, but as a vehicle to drive new avenues of engagement (through search, ads, ad-ons, apps, etc.) on desktops and mobile devices. But this example is all the more telling because it smacked Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang right in the face back in early 2005, long before Chrome and Firefox were giving Internet Explorer a run for its money.

Back then, Firefox was just a few months old and about 400 million users away from where it is now. John Lilly was then considering joining non-profit Mozilla full time (he'd go on to become its CEO, before eventually leaving for Greylock). Mozilla chair Mitchell Baker was trying at the time to convince Lilly to come aboard. "She wanted me to join, but I was on the fence."

Lilly decided to join as a sort of temporary consultant, and on his first day, "[Baker] invited me to this meeting with Jerry Yang at Yahoo," Lilly recalls. "And it changed my life."

He and Baker arrived at Yahoo on time ("back when Yahoo still kind of mattered," Lilly jokes), but they ended up waiting quite a while for Yang to actually show up. "Jerry comes in 45 minutes late for an hour-long meeting," Lilly recalls. "And he comes in, and he starts yelling at us. Honest to god, he just started yelling at us."

The reason, Lilly soon learned, was because of Firefox's partnership with Google that made the Yahoo competitor the default search engine on the Firefox browser. "He's yelling at us because he figures, well, they had spent money with Southwestern Bell [now AT&T] and all these other guys to bundle Yahoo with their crappy Internet service," he says. "But then the people were going to download Firefox, and suddenly they'd be Google users, because we built Google in."

"It was funny because while he was yelling at us, I'm thinking, 'Well shit, for a guy who is worth billions of dollars just to start yelling at us like this, it probably means I'm in the right place,'" Lilly recalls. "I decided during that meeting to join up."

In a few years time, with Lilly as CEO of Mozilla, Firefox would grow to add hundreds of millions of users, making it one of the most widely used browsers in the world. Meanwhile, Yahoo, once a strong rival to Google in search, has watched its market share dwindle--it now even outsources its search engine to Microsoft.

The tale says a lot about how Yahoo invests in products. Yang should've seen the writing on the wall in 2005--how ridiculous it was for a web giant like Yahoo to be entirely beholden to a third-party non-profit like Mozilla. Simply put, you couldn't reach a Yahoo product without first going through Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, or another browser.

That disavantaged position has migrated from the browser space to mobile: You can't reach a Yahoo product without going through an iPhone or Android device. Yahoo's new Axis browser is nothing more than an app in another company's app store you hope users will adopt over Safari or Chrome; even Yahoo's desktop "browser" is a mere plug-in for browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer--a "glorified toolbar," as one reviewer put it.

Instead of spending time and money on product innovation--perhaps developing its own browser back in 2005--Yahoo came up with bundled deals to push its products. Google was arguably employing a similar strategy, but it would only be a couple years before it launched its own browser, Chrome, which just this week became the world's most popular browser.

Yahoo, on the other hand, is just barely entering the space now with its Axis browser.

As John Lilly tweeted, in response to seeing that Yahoo had launched its own web browser, "Um what? Great move ... in 2008."

[Image: Kei Shooting via ShutterStock]

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2 Comments

  • Joseph Bassett

    Isn't Yahoo's best product the addictive little Yahoo News? What creative thinking could they find that would build on addictive info bites. Who cares if they make a browser. 

  • Michael Stafford

    I kind of feel like Yahoo are one of those "jack of all trades, master of none" companies. It's like they just try to do too much and that's why they're not taken seriously.

    I think the only Yahoo service I actually use is Yahoo Answers and that's in a pinch to gauge other people's views, you could hardly call it reliable.