Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

What Does Microsoft Really Want?

Microsoft does not have a secret plot to buy Yahoo.

Maybe Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer should be hovering in the wings, like a digital Simon Legree ready to pounce again on poor Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang.

But he’s not.

And still the hopeful, the suspicious and, most of all, the beaten-down Yahoo shareholders continue to jump on any utterance from the software giant, even woefully mistranslating interviews with its top execs, to make it so.

Yesterday, it was some apparently mistranslated words from a German story coming from Microsoft’s Kevin Johnson–the head of its Platforms & Services unit who has been one of the main execs driving the Yahoo bid–about the company ready to make a new one if management changes.

This kind of thing has happened a lot since Microsoft (MSFT) walked away from its takeover bid for Yahoo (YHOO) in May, put off by months of rejection from the Internet portal and smarting from Yahoo’s flirtation with archrival Google (GOOG)–worries that turned out to be totally worth the worry, in fact.

Thus, the feeling persists that Microsoft is still hovering in the wings with some fabulously clever ploy to grab Yahoo once the time is right, once Yahoo’s current bumbling management is swept aside, once Yahoo’s stock once again falls below the $20-per-share mark that prompted its last foray.

But, even though Yahoo’s stock price is nearing that scary mark, as near as BoomTown can tell and let me repeat again, Microsoft does not have a plan to buy Yahoo at the ready.

That is not to say that they should not, as I have written again and again, given Microsoft’s definitely stated goal to compete aggressively in the online ad business, both in the search and display arena.

To do that and fast–because there needs to be some urgency here as Google is now sprinting away in the search sector and has some traction in the display area–Microsoft needs to be considering buying up, if not Yahoo, then the third-ranked business in the space, which would be Time Warner’s (TWX) AOL.

As I wrote before, in a move that seems increasingly sensible and easy (plus Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes is someone clearly ready, willing and able to deal):

As for AOL–it’s a more likely scenario, given it would allow Microsoft to double down in the display space with the Time Warner division’s Platform A ad unit and also gain some other strong properties (such as in video search with Truveo, with widgetmaker Userplane, as well as in instant messaging).

It would also probably like to give the boot to Google, which now serves up AOL search ads (and which also holds a 5% stake in AOL).

Microsoft has been very close to buying AOL before, once even considering spinning its Internet properties and AOL into a newco, so it does know the lay of the land there.”

While I realize a purchase of AOL, which Microsoft has noodled on before and is clearly noodling on now, seems like a band-aid approach to the situation and does not up its search share, the company probably needs to make a very bold and definitive move to begin its long slog to becoming the No. 2 player in the online ad market.

Because as Yahoo dithers its way and tries to recover from the management crisis it is in, Microsoft does, in fact, have the clear opportunity to become the second most important player in online advertising.

And given the attractive and obvious growth rate in the market over the next decade, is it such a bad thing to come in second?

In fact, when asked in a recent interview in the Financial Times, Microsoft’s Ballmer said as much:

At the end of the day, this is about the ad platform. This is not about just any one of the applications. The most important application for the foreseeable future is search. It’s where you start things. It’s where you express intent. It is important.

I don’t think we can say, OK, well, we’re going to be in the ad platform business, and we’re going to do it just on the strength of non-search based assets. We have to be in the ad business, and we’ve got to have a good chunk. We don’t have to dominate, but we’d better have a darn good chunk of the search market over time, and we’re working away at it.”

But, Microsoft clearly needs to work harder and quicker.

Or as Ballmer also said in the FT interview:

We’re small; the other guys are big. There’s a market out there. We have only one way to go, and it’s up, baby, up, up, up, up, up!”

Sounds like a plan to me.