Say what you want about its world-dominating motives or its artless means, Microsoft's game is no secret to anyone, and in that sense, it is a very transparent and authentic brand. That's often all you can expect from a negotiation. Microsoft's game is We Own the Platform and the Rest of You, Including Steve Jobs, Can Kiss Our Dongles. From its uber-geek culture to its aggressive management style there is nothing about Microsoft that doesn't read loud and clear. Bill Gates is Mr. Spock; Steve Ballmer is Bald Kirk, and this is the Starship Enterprise, bitches.
When you are in a scene with Microsoft, you are probably going to be playing its game, or you are not going to be playing at all.
Yahoo, by contrast, does not know what game it's playing these days. The game used to be Making Search Fun. The prosperity generated by this game presented Yahoo with a surfeit of opportunities, many of which it gobbled up like a bum at a banquet, including that juiciest and most seductive of morsels, the opportunity to be a player in Hollywood.
Like Redmond, Hollywood is also very clear about the game it plays. The game is called This is a Poker Table with Six Seats, Five of Which Belong to the House and the Other One is Always Open -- to Coca Cola, Vivendi, Seagram, Matsushita and Any Rich Dude Who Wants to Date Actresses. Yahoo took the Sixth Seat when it hired Hollywood house player Terry Semel as its CEO in 2001. That didn't work out so well for anyone but Semel and whoever was sitting in the other house seats. Seduced and betrayed by heartless Hollywood, Yahoo today is one confused coquette. Its behavior resembles that of some fourth-generation member of the Getty family who snaps out of an alcohol stupor one day and wonders how so many meerkats and macaws got into the mansion.
When two players like Microsoft and Yahoo share a scene, the stronger player dictates the rules and roles, usually to the detriment of a less aggressive player who does not have a clear identity.
By playing its aggressive game with Yahoo, Microsoft has dominated the dialogue, and painted the Yahoo brand as, by turns, a win-win acquisition, a hostile takeover target, an overvalued poser, and an insincere tease. The latest variation is "just friends." Because Yahoo does not have as strong a sense of itself and its game, all it can do is react to these situations. And as the godmother of modern improvisation, Viola Spolin said, "To react is protective and constitutes withdrawal from the environment. Since we are seeking to reach out, a player must act upon environment, which in turns acts upon player..." In other words, by reacting to Microsoft instead of "acting on environment," Yahoo becomes protective of its brand, hence a passive player in the scene.
Google is a powerful player yanked by Yahoo into the scene in a supporting role. This is typical behavior for a weak player, always looking for some kind of salvation from the wings. To the audience, this just makes the weak player look weaker. And so it has been with Yahoo, as it somewhat desperately courted Google's partnership, oblivious to the idea that when they made this move, the audience would instantly read it as a Google vs. Microsoft scene, a scene in which Yahoo is only a supporting player.
Like any other improvised scene, it is difficult to predict what direction this one will take. If Microsoft chooses, it can continue to dominate the scene and Yahoo will have no choice but to play along. I'm sure it's Yahoo's longshot hope that Google or some other Disney-sized suitor will jump into the scene and go head to head with Redmond. What is certain is that in the networked world, a meandering and moneyed player like Yahoo will soon get edited. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang is working hard on behalf of his brand to control the timing and style of the edit. In a scene with Microsoft and Google, that's going to be the best Yahoo can do.
Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. His website is www.gamechangers.com