Darel Rex Finley in 888

Where Real and Yahoo Went Wrong

2008.05.03   prev     next

SOME time in the late 1990s I stopped trying to use anything made by Real. Several times, when I had wanted to play something that was in their format, I had installed their player. To my horror, I found that the “player” was actually a whole ecosystem, replete with dancing ads and lures, and in general it seemed to want to become a whole new way for me to use my computer — almost like AOL — when all I wanted was to play some Real-formatted audio or video file I had found on the internet. Then when in disgust I tried to remove the player, it was always a pain, even on a Mac where apps are an order of magnitude easier to remove than on a PC. And it didn’t help that the quality of the video usually sucked.

Who knows, maybe Real has cleaned up its act and it isn’t that bad today. But for me it’s too late. I don’t even want to try anything from Real anymore. When I encounter a Real-formatted audio or video file (which happens less and less frequently with each passing year), I just move on. Apple’s QuickTime player, by comparison, was (and still is) simple, clean, easy to remove (not that you’d want to), and usually featured high-quality video.

I had a similar experience with Yahoo. I used Yahoo for search and web-based e-mail for a while, but when Google came along I immediately switched to it for search. And when Google’s Gmail became available, I switched to that, too. By comparison to Google, Yahoo was (still is?) a patchwork nightmare of ads and unwanted features that seems desperate to suck you into its little world, making you dependent on it in as many ways as possible — instead of just providing the one thing you went there for, and providing it very well.

Real and Yahoo, I think, were trying to take a strategy lesson from Microsoft. Microsoft was wildly successful with a strategy of making its users totally dependent on Microsoft for multiple different things, while not providing any of those things with exceptional quality. AOL was pretty successful too with a similar approach. Real and Yahoo were trying to do the same thing. So why didn’t it work for them? Why has Real faded into obscurity, and why is Yahoo faltering to the point that Microsoft can try to take it over?

Ads Are A Revenue Bonus, Not A Feature

The answer is that the only player in the game who can afford to load their system with a bewildering maze of ads and superfluous features is the biggest player. And even then, that player must be careful not to be too aggressive with that stuff. Windows computers often come loaded with adware and automatic “join this, try that” popups. But without too much trouble, you (the user) can get rid of that and have a normal, Windows OS without random ads and popups. Apple’s iTunes Store immediately presents you with an eye-glazing collage of ads, lists, and featured media. But any modestly experienced user knows to just click the tiny “Power Search” link, and poof — the ad-soup vanishes and is replaced with a music-and-video search feature that’s as clean and straightforward as Google.

(And speaking of Google, they have ads too — unavoidable ones, at that — but their ads are extremely unobtrusive text-only affairs that you almost don’t notice. And even those ads don’t appear on the entry page where you tell Google for what you want to search.)

Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s iTunes store are the biggest players in their respective fields, so they can afford to annoy the user with a sea of ads (but even then, an easily removeable one). Real and Yahoo, in contrast, seemed to think that a sea of ads, links, and unnecessary features can make you the biggest player. They were wrong; it can’t. Virtually all users are annoyed by such collages, but if the collage consists of many paid placements, and the user can get away from it relatively easily, then apparently it’s a net positive for the player who already has a huge user base. But it’s never been a user-base-building advantage against competing players in the same market.

 

Update 2008.05.25 — ZDNet UK’s rogue’s gallery of annoying software includes RealPlayer, and from their description it sounds like it may have gotten worse since I gave up on it years ago.

 

Update 2010.02.04 — From an ars technica article on the downfall of RealVideo:

It’s a sad fate for a once-proud codec.

Once-proud? I thought it sucked from the get-go.

 

Update 2011.09.08 — Yahoo, which once turned down a $47.5 billion buyout offer from Microsoft, now has a $17 billion valuation and is trying to find a buyer.

 

Update 2012.04.04 — Yahoo about to lay off 2,000 people, about a seventh of its employees.

 

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