Nick O'Neill

My ramblings on entrepreneurship and online publishing.
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The Forgotten Yahoo Project That Inspired Two Recently Funded Startups

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Back in 2007 Yahoo! unveiled a project called Pipes. For those who have forgotten the project, you are forgiven. As described on the Pipes website:

Pipes is a powerful composition tool to aggregate, manipulate, and mashup content from around the web.

Like Unix pipes, simple commands can be combined together to create output that meets your needs.

At launch, I was confused why Yahoo would use the phrase “like Unix pipes” in their description. Clearly it’s not a phrase that most people understand. However the technical phrasing didn’t prevent web luminaries from giving the project great acclaim.

On the day of launch, Tim O’Reilly described the project as “a milestone in the history of the internet”. He also highlighted the key value proposition:

To develop a mashup, you already needed to be a programmer. Yahoo! Pipes is a first step towards changing all that, creating a programmable web for everyone.

Five years later the service appears to be alive and under continued development. However new services like IFTTT and Zapier are practically identical, yet still getting a ton of attention (and funding). With that in mind, I can’t help but think that Yahoo has fumbled the ball here.

Perhaps it was too early. Perhaps the Pipes interface was too overwhelming (likely). Perhaps the communication about Unix Pipes was responsible for confusing the early audience. Compare IFTTT and Zapier’s communication to the one used by Yahoo. IFTTT describes their product as follows:

IFTTT is a service that lets you create powerful connections with one simple statement: if this then that.

Zapier distills things even better:

Zapier is for busy people who know their time is better spent selling, marketing, or coding. Instead of wasting valuable time coming up with complicated systems – you can use Zapier to sync the web apps you and your team are already using on a daily basis.

Despite the words chosen, each of these projects do extremely similar things. The only difference is that Yahoo was 5 years ahead of these new startups. Fortunately for IFTTT, Zapier, and any new entrants, the opportunity still exists today and it’s due to Yahoo’s poor execution.

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