In a sense, the history of consumer technology is a map of roads not taken. For all the emphasis placed on innovation and disruption in tech corporation culture, many of the digital realm’s “new ideas” only happened because of shortsighted decisions by dominant leading companies. As Business Insider rightly reports, the first major graphical operating system wasn’t Windows or Apple OS; it was Xerox Star. It was only after Xerox failed to capitalize, and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both remixed its ideas and poached a few Xerox engineers, that Windows and Apple OS were born. IBM dominated the computer hardware industry until it dismissed personal computers as toys. By the time the company changed direction, Apple had already changed the world with the Apple II.
All that is history, however. Personal computing is now a diverse marketplace with multiple competing manufacturers. Windows and Apple still dominate the OS market, but Chrome OS and various Linux distros have cut themselves non-negligible pieces of the pie.
Search engines, on the other hand, are dominated by Google. In an alternate universe somewhere, the previous sentence ended with “Yahoo.” Here’s how it went down.
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In fact, quite a few different companies had the opportunity to snap up Google and turn their brand name into the most visited website in the world. As Interesting Engineering reports, Google began its life in 1995 as BackRub, a passion project of Larry Page and Sergey Brin intended to deliver backlinks to particular websites. Both men expected to be academics rather than businesspeople. Even after a $100,000 no-strings contribution to the Google project by Sun Microsystems cofounder Andy Bechtolsheim – a check that had to sit in a drawer for weeks because Brin and Page hadn’t established a company called “Google” yet – the programmers sought to sell rather than continue their project.
People kept turning them down. George Bell, CEO of early search engine Excite, called Brin and Page’s $1 million price “preposterous. Investment banker David Cowan of Bessemer Investments also turned down Brin and Page. But Yahoo was the biggest rejection.
Billion dollar hindsight
It was Yahoo that really missed the boat. Per Yahoo itself, it turned down two chances to buy what became the world’s most popular search engine. Yahoo was one of the first companies to turn down Google’s early offers, passing on Brin and Page’s pitch in 1998. At the time, Yahoo’s reasoning was clear: Yahoo built their search model to answer questions while Google ranked pages. For Yahoo, the former approach was a proven success. The latter was an unknown.
Yahoo made a considerably bigger mistake in 2002. At that point Google was a thriving $3 billion business. Yahoo turned down a second chance to buy in, betting instead on its ability to create an in-house alternative.
Yahoo’s Google-killer never materialized. The company lost ground throughout the 2000s and 2010s before finally accepting a buyout offer from Verizon in 2017. For those still keeping score, according to Statista, the Verizon-owned Yahoo now controls 2.59% of the global search engine market. Google owns 84.69%.