Is eBay going to the dogs? Don't bet on it

If you want to talk about companies in the midst of corporate crises, there are better examples.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

Earlier today, one of my blogging brethren Don Reisinger laid into eBay, dismissing it as "no more than an outdated, bloated company that lost its way years ago."

Meg Whitman: Goodbye to the old boss Dan Farber/CNET News.com

Once a Internet company gets a rap for being "uncool" you know the corporate marketing team has taken its eye off the ball. But in this Web 2.0-to-Web 2.5 world of ours, the temptation is to shoot first--and then shoot again and again without asking whether you're even aiming at the right target.

So it is that the piece finishes with the suggestive admonishment that:

"eBay is poised to enter the junk heap of tech if it doesn't do something quickly. It may seem like a company that has longevity written all over it, but trust me, the chances of eBay staying around for too long while maintaining this strategy are slim. Sadly, it'll only take one competitor."

That's harsh but I'm not convinced it's a fair appreciation of what's happening on the ground. No denying eBay has had its issues and the company's also got to prove it didn't waste a ton of dough when it bought Skype. But give management some credit for understanding the risks and challenges it faces.

Meg Whitman's done most of the heavy lifting since she became CEO in 1998. Soon the reigns get handed to John Donahoe, who arrived at eBay three years ago after spending 20 years at Bain & Co., where he finished up as the company's CEO. Hardly a lightweight.

John Donahoe: Meet the new boss eBay

Skeptics have every right to reserve judgment about Donahoe. But I like what I've seen so far. He's presided over changes that reduce the cost to list items for sale and now sellers get to keep more than they previously retained after sales close.

And since the fee changes went into effect, U.S. listings are up between 10 percent and 15 percent. What's more, Best Match, which eBay launched in early March, is also showing improving conversion rates, probably due to the new relevancy-based search algorithm which recently got rolled out.

I suppose you could make the argument that eBay benefits from a dearth of serious competition. Yahoo Auctions never got traction and was shut down last spring. At this point, the only potentially serious competitor would be Amazon--but so far it remains a work in progress. If you're eBay, that's a pretty enviable position to be in while the company works out the kinks. But let's not confuse that with crisis.

Other tech companies have faced far bigger obstacles. The top three on my all-time list feature:

•  At IBM, John Akers didn't have a clue how to deal with the challenge posed by PC clone makers. His idea? Break the company into Baby Bells. Lou Gerstner put a stop to that once he got the keys to the executive office.

•  Hewlett-Packard found itself in absolute chaos after the Compaq acquisition. Mark Hurd's firm hand cleared up the mess and put an end to the internal corporate strife soon after replacing Carly Fiorina.

•  Apple was seemingly on a death spiral under Gil Amelio in the mid-1990s. The product strategy wasn't working and customers were bailing. Then Steve Jobs engineered The Return and the rest was history.

Those were real crises. With eBay, what we're talking about is a nip and tuck job. So let's keep some perspective.