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Yahoo's Jerry Yang is no Bill Gates

CNET's Charles Cooper says loyalists who want to give Yahoo's CEO one more chance are living in the past.

The New York Post, a paper whose business section has a special flair for getting the story wrong, may finally have gotten one right.

In its Friday edition, an independent group of Yahoo board members believes Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang may be letting emotions trump his better judgment and that's why he's opposed to accepting Microsoft's buyout offer.

When it comes to big acquisitions, so much of what gets put forward as informed analysis is likely to be off the mark. But among people familiar with his thinking, Yang's distaste for Microsoft is an open secret.

"Jerry would rather give up his left pinky than see Microsoft wind up running this company," said a former Yahoo employee who knows Yang.

I can understand Yang's reluctance to do this deal. Along with David Filo, he built Yahoo from scratch. Now an increasingly noisy chorus of shareholders is pressuring him to turn over the keys to the "Monkey Boy" and his cohorts. That has Yahoo scrambling to come up with alternatives. One day Google pops up as the leak du jour, the next day it's News Corp. At this rate, it won't be long before we hear rumors of Warren Buffett sightings.

Would one of those scenarios result in a better denouement? The answer depends on who you're asking.

When I talk with folks who consider themselves in the "pro-Jerry" crowd, I hear Yang described in almost worshipful tones. His people trust him to do the right thing. They love him for his passion and commitment. And even though Yang could have checked out years ago, he earned their loyalty by sticking with it through the good years and the lean. And so it was that when Terry Semel got sent back to La-La Land, Yang agreed to a return engagement as Yahoo's CEO.

Yahoo shareholders can't be equally impressed. Fact is that Yang was involved in horrendous decisions where Yahoo wasted billions on rancid acquisitions. What's more, the extensive turnover in the executive offices--Semel, Tim Koogle, Jeff Mallett, Dan Rosensweig, and Wenda Harris Millard, among others--doesn't inspire confidence that this company knows what it wants to be when it's all grown up.

Corporate turnover in tech-land is a fact of life. I could easily come up with a similar list of top Microsoft executives who subsequently were shown the exits. The big difference being that during the interregnum Microsoft became one of the most successful corporations in the history of American business. A lot of the credit for that goes to Bill Gates. When you tally the last three decades of the technology business, how many co-founders navigated their companies as successfully through so many twists and turns?

I don't want to draw invidious comparisons, but there's little in Yang's track record to suggest he's got the makings of a superstar CEO who could lead Yahoo's revival--especially not at this juncture.

Earlier this month, Millard, who ran sales at Yahoo, used the occasion of an appearance at a media summit to speak frankly about her former employer. She did not mince words.

"Yahoo lost sight of who they are and who their customers are," she said. "Yahoo's perception is that their only competitor is Google. But 95 percent of their revenue comes from advertising--so their competitors are really the broadcast TV networks. They think they're in the search game, when they should really be in the brand advertising game."

"It reduces choice for advertisers," she added. "There would be two Goliaths, down from three. Advertising is a business that is both art and science. The merger focuses unduly on science. With Google-DoubleClick and Yahoo-Microsoft, it is as if the scientific community is taking over advertising. And advertising is not about science."

Who can argue the point? And while Yang may not have been CEO while Yahoo made many of those decisions, he went along for the ride. And that's why the loyalists who "want to give Jerry one more chance" are living in the past. I know Bill Gates. I cover Bill Gates. And Jerry Yang, sad to say, is no Bill Gates.