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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer talks 'core, pillar products' in first public interview

Marissa Mayer

After months of virtual seclusion since her appointment as Yahoo CEO this summer, Marissa Mayer broke her silence with a public interview (video below) at Fortune’s The Most Powerful Women dinner this week in Palo Alto. Mayer is a product person, and the decision of Yahoo’s board to hire her rather than keep interim CEO Ross Levinsohn was explicitly a decision to prioritize product over content. The question on everyone’s mind is how Mayer plans to turn Yahoo’s vast stable of products into something competitive with the best of today’s web and mobile apps.

"How can you not get in the user's way?"

When Fortune’s Patricia Sellers asked the CEO what makes a great product, she replied, “something where you see an acute user need and solve it in a way that is frictionless and beautiful… How can you not get in the user’s way? How can you just help someone immediately get something done?” A quick comparison of Yahoo’s Mail service with Google’s Gmail gives you an idea of the kind of challenge Mayer is up against. Next, when asked about products that she admired, Mayer cited Apple’s iPhone rather than her former employer’s own Android OS, although she did point to “Google” in general.

One Yahoo property that users are particularly passionate about — and critical of Yahoo for its (mis)handling of — is Flickr. But when asked about the photo sharing service as an example of a struggling property that could use some renewed attention, Mayer seemed to downplay its relative importance to the bigger Yahoo strategy, saying:

“I think one of the key pieces for Yahoo is getting really focused on the things that it’s great at, and investing an appropriate amount, being really clear about execution. We’ve had a couple of really core, pillar products and then we have a lot of products that are smaller, that have occasionally been a hit, or been a hit in one market. But I do think we really want to have a global suite of products that are truly excellent. These are things like Search, Mail, the home page, News, Finance, sports… there’s Flickr, there’s Groups, there’s Answers…”

Throughout the interview Mayer hammered away at the idea that a strong mobile strategy is crucial to the company’s future, but that she believes Yahoo has all the right pieces in place. “We had my chief of staff pull what people do on their phones, in a rank ordered list,” said the CEO. Outside of functions performed by the carriers like voice and text, “it’s mail, weather, check stock quotes, check sports scores, watch videos, share photos, check the news…,” emphasizing the nearly one-to-one correlation with Yahoo’s own offerings. She also hinted at the possibility of a Yahoo all-in-one app, saying that there's a great opportunity to be the app that new smartphone owners should install first. One big omission in Yahoo's portfolio is of course maps, but don’t hold out hope. “I've done maps in my former life. It’s very expensive, very hard to do well. Apple’s finding that out,” said Mayer.

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