Yahoo's desperate search times call for open source

Yahoo's desperate search times call for open source

Summary: Yahoo has opened its search for developers to customize in its latest step in what it calls its Open Strategy, a plan to make Yahoo a platform.The effort is dubbed Yahoo Search BOSS, which allows "allows developers and companies to create and launch web-scale search products by utilizing the same infrastructure and technology that powers Yahoo!


Yahoo has opened its search for developers to customize in its latest step in what it calls its Open Strategy, a plan to make Yahoo a platform.

The effort is dubbed Yahoo Search BOSS, which allows "allows developers and companies to create and launch web-scale search products by utilizing the same infrastructure and technology that powers Yahoo! Search."

In a nutshell, Yahoo is opening its search kimono to spur innovation, build a community of developers and with any luck gain on Google and/or thwart Microsoft's desire to buy its search business. Yahoo began talking about its open strategy in January and has been rewiring the place ever since.

Yahoo says:

As anyone who follows the search industry knows, the barriers to successfully building a high quality, web-scale search engine are incredibly high. Doing so requires hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in engineering, sciences and core infrastructure -- from crawling and indexing technology to relevancy and machine learning algorithms, to stuff as mundane as data centers, servers and power. Because competing successfully in web search requires an investment of this scale, new players have effectively been prohibited from delivering credible alternatives to Yahoo! and Google. We believe the BOSS platform will begin to change that.

Very true, but why would you open all that investment to folks? Because you're not winning. For developers, the effort could be a boon. All these sites have to do is support Yahoo's ad business for the technology. To me it's a fine trade-off. Yahoo explains:

It's really quite simple. First, we believe that being open is core to Yahoo!'s future success -- opening our network, opening our own search experience via SearchMonkey, and now opening our search infrastructure via BOSS -- will lead to innovation both on Yahoo! and powered by Yahoo!. For BOSS, we see a virtuous circle in which partners deliver innovative search experiences, and as they grow their audiences and usage we have more data that can be used to improve our own Yahoo! Search experience and as a result, improve the quality of results our BOSS partners and their users get. Second, we do see new revenue streams from BOSS. In the coming months, we'll be launching a monetization platform for BOSS that will enable Yahoo! to expand its ad network and enable BOSS partners to jointly participate in the compelling economics of search.

boss.pngBut there are significant questions that prevent me from completely hopping on this BOSS bandwagon (although companies like Me.dium and Hakia are already on board):

  • What happens to this effort if Microsoft buys the company or its search business?
  • Is this effort about defense or offense, a distinction that matters if I'm a developer?
  • Can I really build a search effort on Yahoo's APIs with the corporate uncertainty with Carl Icahn and Microsoft?

Despite those questions, BOSS is a good idea. Yahoo's infrastructure can be used to rank search results and tweak against the company's results, create new services, mash up applications and target verticals. Meanwhile, APIs will be expanded.

History isn't kind

History is another item that puts me in the wait-and-see camp regarding Yahoo's BOSS effort. Here's my working theory: Open source is a fine model for companies as long as they start that way. When you go proprietary to open source it's usually because you're losing the war and it's too late. In other words, open strategies have to be in your DNA from the beginning. It's very hard to switch streams.

To wit:

  • In 1998, Netscape created to try to keep its Communicator browser going. Netscape was losing share to Microsoft's Internet Explorer and the company wanted to woo developers. Today, it's clear that Mozilla is a huge success, but it didn't do much for Netscape at the time. Mozilla at the time resembled a Hail Mary pass. And it was.

  • RealNetworks shared code in an effort called Helix--but only after it was clear Windows Media Player had won the fight. RealNetworks later chastised Apple for having a closed system with the iPod, but we know how that turned out too. RealNetwork's efforts were commendable and it worked hard to recruit the open source crowd, but it never regained its late 1990s momentum.

  • Sun has also gone hog wild for open source, buying MySQL, launching Open Solaris and contributing code to the open source community repeatedly over the last decade. However, if Sun had its old gravy train going--selling expensive proprietary servers with its own chips--I'd bet this open source thing wouldn't have happened. Admittedly, that's cynical. Today, Sun is an open source poster child, but it's trying to stir up an ecosystem to move software and hardware too. However, you can argue Sun is using open source as a Hail Mary pass too.

The chart (via Google Finance) tells the open source as Hail Mary pass tale:


Simply put, everyone loves open source when they are getting the snot kicked out of them.

And that brings us to Yahoo. The company invested billions in its search, spent a ton of engineering time and is getting lapped by Google. Meanwhile, Microsoft is hovering. In that context, Yahoo's open strategy makes a lot of sense. But let's not kid ourselves, Yahoo's open strategy could be characterized as a Hail Mary pass too. It may work. BOSS may turn out to be brilliant. But let's reserve judgment until we see some results--on the business and technology fronts.

Update:  There are a few differing opinions on this one. Ed Burnette says I have it all wrong and one talkbacker agrees. Can you feel the love today on ZDNet? The crux of Ed's argument is that what Yahoo search plan isn't technically open source. I'll concede that to a degree, but the overall point is that when a company suddenly gets "open" religion it's because things are going so well. Ed also holds up Mozilla as a success--a point I acknowledge in my post. That didn't turn out so swell for Netscape, which was already in decline.

Dana Blankenhorn also has an interesting post on the Yahoo move that qualifies as a must read.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Open Source

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Building a better search will only...

    make Yahoo more appealing to MS. Just because it's Open will in no way deter MS. They still want the company and if Icahn wins it will be theirs.

    The fact that Yahoo is open source is one thing that has intrigued MS. MS has nothing against open source if it will make them money. The only reason they don't like it is as a threat to their bottom line. If it can increase that bottom line they will embrace it.
  • Yang wants to make certain Yahoo has no value

    left when he is booted out the door.
    • Yang was killing Yahoo's value....

      long before MS wanted to buy them. I don't know what his technical skill are, but his CEO skills are lacking.

      I do think you're right about declining value. Yang is going to fight MS even if it kills Yahoo. I'm sure he doesn't want to give up his baby but he is showing no signs of being able to bring Yahoo back to its former glory.
  • RE: Yahoo's desperate search times call for open source

    I wish Yahoo luck. It's always been better at web systems than ANYTHING MS has tried to do. I just don't see this thing about people supporting MS in this buyout, I suspect their motives. I can't think of any time MS has done anything useful with its web applications, their business strategy is laughable and obvious: all they do is seek to dominate through monetary power. When that works it always means bad things for the consumer because it forces the market to remodel itself to their crappy way of doing things. On the web, they've always been short-sighted and last in the race of innovation, constantly seeking to catch up by buying new tech, absorbing it and then fossilising it. The last thing the net needs is more of that.
    • Avoiding the worst

      "I can't think of any time M$ has done anything useful"

      I'll second that. OTOH, Yahoo! hasn't made any visible
      improvements in their search in a long long time. There
      may have been some improvements under the hood, and
      they've certainly redecorated a couple times. But they still
      don't offer a good full Boolean search in either web or
      news (even alltheweb was better before Yahoo! took them
      over). And the news results always lag those other guys,
      and turn up fewer articles on a topic.

      And then you consider the whole human rights violation,
      which Yang and Yahoo! at least apologized for and offered
      to pay some restitution to the families of the people the
      Red Chinese grabbed. M$ and Google and Cisco haven't
      shown even that much of a conscience.

      More competition in the sector would be eagerly
      welcomed, and concentration will only make things worse.
  • Is a way to make sure the tech survives

    Netscape no longer exists, but the Mozilla Project lives on and prospers.
    John L. Ries
  • Hindsight is always 20/20,

    but as a user I can only hope that [b]Yahoo[/b]'s open-source strategy will, in fact, provide the firm with a second lease on life. [b]Google[/b] - and more importantly, we users - need the competition !...

  • Another poison pill

    As if the employee buy-out plan wasn't bad enough, now Yang is lifing up his skirt and giving it away for free.
    This is consistent with Yang's promise to increase shareholder value... how, exactly?
    And it also flies in the face of making Yahoo! solicit a higher offer from Microsoft or any other suitor. If anything MS's next offer will be significantly lower.
    Yahoo!'s search business still has value, but Micro$oft and the open source freetard community have never gotten along. Heck, they've never pretended to get along.
    This one will be hard for the Borg to swallow. Time for Balmer to take off the beer goggles and think about how bad he wants a piece of Yahoo!
  • Spot On

    Going the open-source route might not help Yahoo, but it should be a long term concern for Google and Microsoft. It moves search functionality into the realm of commodity infrastructure, and undercuts Google's efforts at selling "enterprise search" functionality.

    It's taken Sun a long time to really "get" open-source, and so Yahoo's efforts may founder. Are they really buying into the open source ethos for their products, or is this little more than a marketing bumpersticker?
  • RE: Yahoo's desperate search times call for open source

    This is only making Yahoo stronger. If I was the search leader I'd be pooping my pants about this.
    Loverock Davidson
    • Based on what

      They're so desperate that they are praying that open source saves them? And you see this as good news?
      • open source is helping destroy the industry & profession

        Open source is helping destroy the industry & profession.
    • Lovey, Lovey, Lovey...

      Honestly, where do you get this stuff?

      Google probably doesn't care a bit about what Yahoo is doing with their search engine. At the same time Google is investing in Windows compatibility for Linux (Wine) so that Adobe products can run without a proprietary OS.

      What does this all mean? Getting a little paranoid?
  • Not about Yahoo

    I gotta say,
    it seems this article is less evidentiary and a lot more rhetoric than anything else. You're methods for supporting your main thesis are bordering on flimsy, and really don't take into account the overriding fundamental shift in a business's philosophy when they choose to make an open source move.

    You're reasoning for a 'wait and see' approach feel a bit too contrived to really give serious thought.

    As a developer, I don't understand why the question of whether Yahoo!'s decision being defensive or offensive should really cause you to enter a state of indecisiveness. The promise of this hugely valuable resource that is being offered to you should be making you salivate over the possibilities.

    As for your 2 points concerning Icahn and Microsoft... it will either last, or it won't. But the fact is that decision is going to be made before the summer's end.

    As far as I'm concerned I welcome your decision to take a nice comfortable seat on the fence... enjoy the view. The more intrepid maverick trailblazers will wave to you as they pass you by on the way to fame and fortune.

    The list of 'failed' or at least 'not successful' OSS offerings don't do much to convince. Especially when you totally disregard Java when speaking about Sun.... seams utterly selective. All 3 of those products were a the top of their respective markets and were hugely affected by factor's other than those of technical merit. The technology and intrinsic knowledge of building those products are of huge value to those that created them if a model can be adopted to ensure the continued widespread use of those products.

    It really seams that the sentiment of this article is founded more in 'knee-jerk reaction' than thoughtful reflection.
  • Yahoo Open Strategy can work if marketed

    Yahoo has to market It's Open Strategy like crazy to big websites and start ups. Split any resulting revenue down the middle with these larger websites and make it free to developers and startups to use until a certain level of revenue is reached.

    The Microsoft problem is the only issues that keeps me from being to hopeful about BOSS and Yahoo Pipes which have the potential to be great platforms. If Microsoft/Icahn go away I would gladly embrace Yahoo as a development platform otherwise I will wait until six months after the Yahoo investor meeting.
  • Absolutely classic

    Yahoo's thinking:

    Let's find a bunch of dumb fuck open source programmers to do volunteer work for us while we turn down multi-billion dollar buyouts.
  • RE: Yahoo's desperate search times call for open source

    Very informative. I would have to agree with the 'wait and see' sentiment.

    The reality is that Google's indexing and ranking *is* better than Yahoo's. So, accessing Yahoo's indexing infrastructure won't offer any significant advantages. The Yahoo servers are still going to spit out a host of nonsense pages. A developer may have to get 10,000 hits and examine them just to be sure its got decent coverage.

    A meta search over three or four internet search engine indexes is a tactic that will yield significantly superior results.

    OTOH, you don't have to have relevant hits to put an advertisement on the search result page. Tying access together with a means of monetization may resonate with an enterprising Jack or Jill.

    -Ken Ewell
  • Yang should be EXECUTED by the investors...

    With Microsoft, investors at least had a CHANCE of coming out with some skin -- but thanks to Yang, they'll be lucky to get out and break even.

    This whole debacle has destroyed the value of the company in the eyes of the world -- let alone its owners (investors).

    With this latest poison pill, Microsoft should RUN, not walk, AWAY. They can invest 1/10th the amount of money in their own engine this dog would cost them and come out with algorithms and services that would blow Google out of the water.
    Marty R. Milette
  • RE: Yahoo's desperate search times call for open source

    What message is Yahoo trying to send with this BOSS initiative? Is it trying to make itself more attractive for a microsoft bid or just a powerful way of telling Icahn that it still has get the legs and muscles to stand on its own?Yahoo Searches for Enterprise Strategy(
  • What about Apple + open source

    See my post to Dana Blankenhorn's blog about Apple's success with open source in rescuing the company: