Yahoo’s Unkindest Cuts

For a long time now, Yahoo has suffered a bit of an identity problem. What does it want to be? King of search is Google’s thing, and Facebook owns the social network scene, so what is Yahoo’s identity, besides being a really big email provider?

This week, Yahoo apparently started looking toward a new role model: The Grinch. It’s started dealing out a fresh deck of pink slips, and its timing is so God-awful that you almost have to think it was on purpose, or that the company is so strapped for cash and credit that it couldn’t scape together another two weeks’ pay for a tiny percentage of its workforce.

The total number of employees given Yuletide Yahoo layoffs will be around 650, or 4 percent of the company. The company’s product groups will be the worst hit.

On top of the personnel cutbacks, Yahoo’s also kicking a few websites and technologies to the curb. The company’s confirmed that Yahoo Buzz will be laid to rest, as will the traffic APIs related to its mapping services. Also reportedly on the chopping block are one-time search contender AltaVista, Yahoo Picks, Yahoo Bookmarks, MyM, MyBlogLog and AllTheWeb. Last but not least, Delicious is apparently on its way out too.

Of course, a leaner Yahoo may be better able to compete with its rivals. The company’s been growing in a hodgepodge of different directions over the years, and if this cost-saving measure is accompanied by a renewed effort to focus its direction and vision, then maybe things will work out. A little pruning can be good for a company in the long run.

That’s not very comforting for the employees who lost their jobs, of course, and it’s especially stinging to see Yahoo rivals like Google giving their workers across-the-board raises just to keep them on board. Those at Yahoo who get to keep their jobs may feel relieved, but a round of mid-December layoffs sounds like something that could really undermine the morale of the entire remaining staff.

In the wake of this news, though, Yahoo’s figurative image problem became very literal. On Tuesday, the day news of the layoffs hit, Yahoo Search users discovered a rather odd bug. Innocuous search terms — anything from puppies to sweet potatoes to wrenches, whatever — would result in a set of related thumbnail images at the top of the screen. That’s normal. What wasn’t so normal was what you’d see if you clicked on those images. Users who did so were shown hardcore porn.

No word on whether that little trick was the work of a recently pink-slipped employee. Or it could have been done by a worker who’s job wasn’t in danger at all — maybe they just didn’t like Yahoo’s holiday spirit and figured out a way to pull a prank without getting caught. But if it was just a coincidence … well, that’s one hell of a coincidence.

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Gawker Gets Ogled

A couple years ago, the blog network Gawker had an ongoing feud with 4Chan, an online message board that’s kind of difficult to describe in words. I guess 4Chan sort of functions as the Web’s collective id, for better or for worse. Anyway, Gawker writers would say something mean about 4Chan, 4Chan users would try to pull some kind of prank in retaliation, Gawker would be all “bring it on,” and everybody on the sidelines would have a good snicker.

But apparently 4Chan has had the last laugh, or at least the last laugh so far. A hacker or group of hackers known only as “Gnosis” sneaked into Gawker’s servers recently and helped themselves to thousands of the network’s records, reportedly in retaliation for what they felt was Gawker’s arrogance during the whole 4Chan thing. Then they took all that data they nabbed and seeded it to BitTorrent, letting the whole world see Gawker’s private bits.

This included some interoffice messages between Gawker staffers, but the thing that really got the world’s attention was the inclusion of thousands of usernames and passwords belonging to Gawker users. The network’s blogs require readers to register if they want to post comments, and those hackers exposed readers’ login info to anyone who cared to look. Gawker has been alerting readers for days that if you haven’t changed your password since the attack happened, do it now.

It might not sound like such a big deal if all that happens is maybe someone somewhere slips into your Gawker commenter account without you knowing it. What are they gonna do — sully your good name by posting rude remarks?

But the scenario everyone’s really worried about is if some readers use the same username/password combo on much more important sites — sites that have your credit card information saved to let you buy stuff easily, for example, or even sites that let you manage your credit card and bank accounts. When criminal hackers get their hands on a dump of usernames and passwords like this, they can use software that’ll shotgun them to popular sites all over the Web until they manage to log onto something, then they see what they can get from there.

Moral of the story: If you can figure out a reasonable way to keep a different password for every online account you have, do it. Or at the very least, keep an especially strong password reserved for super-sensitive sites like banks and credit cards, which are generally better protected against these kinds of hacks.

Spooks in the Machine

The open source operating system OpenBSD is caught up in some cloak-and-dagger business, and it could prove to be a revelation of how far the federal government can and does go to spy on people. Or it’s all just a funny little hoax. Either way, it’s enough to keep the tinfoil hat crowd hyperventilating for months.

Recently, Theo de Raadt, founder of OpenBSD, received a letter from one Gregory Perry, who claims to be CEO of a company called GoVirtual Education. But he says that 10 years ago, he was CTO at an outfit called “NETSEC,” where he was involved in a secret FBI program.

The letter alleges that a decade ago, the FBI enticed some developers to take certain encryption systems that are part of OpenBSD and install a few backdoors — in other words, spy holes. They’d apparently give the feds the ability to look at encrypted data in OpenBSD any time they wanted. According to Perry, the purpose was to monitor the site-to-site virtual private network encryption system used by the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, also part of the U.S. Department of Justice. And all the while, people inside the FBI were acting as evangelists, encouraging the use of OpenBSD for implementing VPNs and firewalls.

But now that the 10-year nondisclosure agreement has expired, said Perry, he was free to share this information with everyone.

The letter has been met with some skepticism. de Raadt himself passed it on to the OpenBSD community to do with it what they see fit. Meanwhile, critics have questioned the whole story based on this nondisclosure bit — do federal snooping operations really use NDAs that expire in just 10 years? On the other hand, rumors that the federal government has built backdoors into many popular and not-so-popular encryption methods have been around for a long time — believe what you will on those. And if these backdoors really do exist, they may be very difficult to spot unless you know exactly where to look.

Controlled Leak

WikiLeaks may be finished doing a number on the U.S. State Department for now, but the site itself remains in action, it’s now more famous than ever, and founder Julian Assange is out on bail. It’s anybody’s guess what the next big leak may be; right now rumors seem to point to the banking industry.

But even among those who support WikiLeaks’ general principles, there are some who question its execution. After WikiLeaks is given a big chunk of secret information, it usually just dumps it all into public view. Sometimes efforts are made to censor information here and there, but when you’re talking about tens of thousands or even a quarter million documents, corners will inevitably be cut.

These WikiLeaks critics perhaps believe the site’s heart is in the right place but that it needs a stronger buffer between the raw information and the public. One of those critics happens to be WikiLeaks’ former spokesperson, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. He’s reportedly planning an alternative to WikiLeaks dubbed “OpenLeaks.”

OpenLeaks will allow leakers to anonymously submit material, but instead of dumping it on the open Web, OpenLeaks will pass it along to news media outfits and nongovernmental organizations, as designated by the leaker. Those organizations will then be able to check the facts, redact information, and publish as they see fit.

Naturally this approach won’t solve everything. Media organizations are very capable of self-censorship, and an established and deeply rooted newspaper might just sit on a leak entirely because it figures it has a lot to lose and it’s easy to find and nail, should the government choose to prosecute. A scrappy upstart that exists only on the Web, like WikiLeaks, can afford to be more bold.

Tablet Tactics

In tablets, Apple has the iPad, and Android has the Samsung Galaxy Tab, as well as probably a few dozen more variants from other makers ready to pounce any day now. But where does that leave Microsoft’s tablet plan?

Last January, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer demoed a tablet on stage at CES. It was made by HP, and it was actually shown the light of day a couple of weeks before the iPad made its debut, although at the time, the emergence of some kind of Apple tablet was more or less a sure bet. But hey, that HP Slate Ballmer whipped out made it look like Redmond was ready to hit the ground running.

But in the months that followed, Microsoft’s tablet scene has been all but dead. HP bought out Palm and started turning its attention to webOS as a tablet operating system, at the expense of Windows. For a few months, it seemed an HP Windows Slate just wasn’t going to happen at all — until all of a sudden it did, though as an enterprise-focused tablet, it’s received very little fanfare.

Now the rumor is that Microsoft’s going to give tablets another go with a nice, big push at CES 2011 next month, showcasing devices from manufacturers like Dell and Samsung.

The big question seems to center on how Microsoft is going to approach the software side. At least some of these tablets will reportedly run Windows 7, the same OS Microsoft’s designed for laptop and desktop PCs. Apparently the Samsung device will give you a different interface if you hold it in portrait mode

If that’s actually the plan — to put a full-sized OS into a series of tablet computers — critics say it could be fraught with problems. Power is one issue; devices using full-scale PC operating systems will need a lot of juice, which could make Windows tablets unable to compete with others when it comes to battery life. Another concern is that full-grown OSes are just impractical to use on a touchscreen when you’re using a big, dumb finger instead of sharp little mouse pointer.

But what alternatives does Microsoft have? Well, it could come up with a pared-down version of Windows 7 that fits better into tablets than the standard version does. But that still assumes people will want to use full-scale desktop applications on tablets, and those apps may not work so well when confined to a touchscreen.

Another option is to approach from the opposite direction — its smartphone operating system, Windows Phone 7. Microsoft could scale up its current version of WinPho7 the same way Apple did with iOS to make it look and work better in a device that’s bigger than a phone. Or it could do what Android’s done so far, and more or less just leave it alone, allowing device makers to install Windows Phone 7 as-is on tablets. It might limit those tablets’ sizes, though, because if you blow up the interface on too large a screen, it starts looking bad.

Either way, Microsoft is going to have to get it in gear if it wants a decent piece of the tablet pie. Apple had the market almost entirely to itself for the better part of year, but the bigger threat may come from Android. Hardware makers that aren’t named “Apple” want to sell tablets now, and depending on who moves fastest, Android could end up getting the majority of their tablet attention.

The Year of the Zuckerberg

This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined a small club of famous individuals. Other members include Ronald Reagan, Mikail Gorbechev, Gandhi, Hitler and Stalin. And you know what? As of 2006, I was made a member too, as were you, so I guess it’s not so small and exclusive after all.

Zuckerberg won the honor of Time magazine’s Person of the Year. According to the magazine, quote, “Facebook has merged with the social fabric of American life, and not just American but human life: nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook account, but 70 percent of Facebook users live outside the United States.”

Zuckerberg may actually be the first individual to receive the honor based on a contribution to consumer technology, depending on how you look at it. The computer won in 1982 as Machine of the Year, and in 2006 Time named you person of the year as an homage to user-generated content on the Web. Bill Gates is on the list, but that was based more on his philanthropy work. Jeff Bezos got it in 1999, so is he really the first of this kind? Up to you.

Anyway, it’s been a big year for Zuckerberg, and not always in a good way. Privacy issues continued to dog his company — who can forget that sweaty romp with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at D8 last summer? Then he proved to be a substantial box office draw, though it appears the reason so many people wanted to see “The Social Network” was to watch an actor make him look kind of like an ass.

Despite all this, Facebook just keeps growing and growing, and now this funny little website that a kid started in his dorm room less than a decade ago is one of the main ways hundreds of millions of people communicate with each other. And the popularity of social networking, driven largely by Facebook, has opened up an entirely new market for business activity.

Despite what must be a giant pile of money he could get if he just one day decided to cash in and check out, Zuckerberg’s kept Facebook a private operation with himself at the helm. Twenty-six is an incredibly young age to win Person of the Year, so it’ll be interesting to see where Zuckerberg and Facebook go from here.

1 Comment

  • From the perspective of those who lose their jobs, it’s never "good timing" regardless the state of the economy or the time of the year. Unless, of course, they planned to part ways with their employers anyway.

    If it were April you’d have written about Yahoo as the Big Bad Easter Bunny out to ruin the hunt.

    One thing is certain…the company is hurting and it lacks focus. If it doesn’t turn things around in the next year or two many more people will find themselves out of a job–Christmas around the corner or not.

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