Yahoo started life when two college kids set out to bring you cool stuff on the Web. But as the world has changed, the business has occasionally lost its way. Almost a year ago, Brad Garlinghouse, Yahoo's senior VP of communications and community, made the case that the company's strategy, analogized internally as spreading peanut butter across many opportunities, resulted in a "thin layer of investment spread across everything we do, and thus we focus on nothing in particular."
Indirectly at least, the "peanut-butter manifesto" helped bring about cofounder Jerry Yang's return as Yahoo's CEO last July. I sat down with Garlinghouse and Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo's vice president of the advanced development division, and it has been years since I've seen top Yahooians this excited about the company's prospects. Yang is engineering a sizable strategy shift: a focus on your friends (and even businesses like yours) filling the "cool-stuff supplier" role he once did.
Three Web services that let you easily share content with others offer a peek into Yahoo's future: Flickr (photos), del.icio.us (Web bookmarks), and Upcoming.org (calendar events).
Or let's compare calendars. Most people use Microsoft Outlook, but that doesn't let us share information easily with each other. Add a few friends to Upcoming.org (you can find me at upcoming.yahoo.com/user/138148), and soon your colleagues will help you discover events. On one page, I can view which events 200 friends care about, which is really valuable to me. Same with del.icio.us, where you can easily find or recommend articles. Horowitz's own blog (elatable.com/blog) has many of these features built in, which shows how the point is not to lock you into Yahoo's world but to free you to take these tools anywhere and use them.
Garlinghouse and Horowitz are working on new social features that will show up in Yahoo Mail, which has 250 million users worldwide. "Email, at the end of the day, is a social experience," Garlinghouse says. Horowitz jumps in: "Email is interesting to think about in terms of who knows whom. Who in my organization knows something like networking security?" So much information gets trapped in email. Imagine being able to see what people are working on in your company, or which new ideas they're most passionate about, and at a glance determining which you want to be part of, the same way I can view 200 event recommendations on Upcoming.
Yahoo's opportunity to remake itself—and the impact this remake could have on our lives and businesses—is huge. Many businesses still have glorified brochures as their Web sites, but Yahoo is seeing the best companies get in on this social trend. "You should empower the creativity of others," Garlinghouse says, "so that it's not just a one-way stream from marketer to audience." Yahoo is going to do that for its customers, and then you can do it for yours.
Robert Scoble is an influential video podcast pioneer and blogger following the tech industry. Watch him at Podtech.net and read him at Scobleizer.com. For exclusive video podcasts and daily "Best of the Tech Web," go to fastcompany.com/scoble.