BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Years ago, Marvel Comics had a regular title called What If, a series that delved into the alternate universe of superheroes such as, "What If Peter Parker Was Never Bitten by a Radioactive Spider?" (But also "What if Aunt May instead of her nephew Peter had been bitten by that radioactive spider?" from issue No. 23.)Sports fans also argue about "could have been" moments all the time (What if Bill Buckner hadn't missed that catch in the World Series?) as do political pundits (Should McCain have picked Palin? Should Obama have staked so much political capital on health care reform?). The world of business and finance often dabbles in "what if" scenarios as well. By nature, succession plans are just such an exercise (What happens if our CEO gets hit by a bus?) and wealth managers often pose questions, though diplomatically, as to what happens if your wife gets pregnant, you get divorced or your doctor discovers the worst. Unscientific, and as open for debate as it may be, we took a look at moments and moves that might have forever changed the fate and fortunes of companies, their leaders and the economy as a whole.
It is hard to predict the fickle finger of fate when it comes to social media sites. Could even the best prognosticator have predicted how rapidly MySpace would crash and burn or how swiftly and far the reach of its one-time rival Facebook would expand? And why not Friendster, Hi5 or any of the other also-rans instead of Mark Zuckerberg's retooled variation of what was already readily available? The secret sauce to Facebook's phenomenal rise has to be attributed in large part to Zuckerberg's genius. Love him or hate him, his vision for the site has been perfectly in tune with what the public wants. He knew when to keep Facebook a closed society of students and when to open it up; he has been proven correct in resisting most advertising and seeing that the real revenue was to be had in selling data and access; he has brilliantly cultivated a sticky addiction. And so, we can predict with certainty a Facebook without Zuckerberg would have gone the way of Friendster pretty quickly if his authority was diluted by a Yahoo ( YHOO) purchase, which Yahoo proposed in 2006. There are reasons to see that Yahoo would have mismanaged the asset. There are many things it has done very well over the years, but social media is not one of them. Even the basic functionality of chat rooms and instant messaging has been an abject failure. Concerned by online predators, Yahoo killed off user-created chat rooms and, in the process, eliminated the niches needed to engage users looking for more than random, geography-based conversation. And, despite the preponderance of "captchas" one must travail to enter a room, they are still populated, almost entirely, by "spam bots" most of which seem to be originating from some third world sex site. Do any real, live people still use Yahoo Chat? It hardly seems so. The lack of a social "lounge" within Yahoo made its instant messaging increasingly obsolete. It is still a decent enough product, but a distant runner-up to Microsoft's ( MSFT - Get Report) MSN Messenger and AOL's AIM. Then there was Yahoo 360, a stab at social networking launched in 2005. On paper, it sounded great, integrating personal Web pages, blogs, photo sharing, personalized lists and online notifications. But from 2006 to 2007, U.S. Web traffic for the site plunged, dropping by more than half, and Yahoo gave up trying to fix the numerous bugs. The plug was finally pulled in 2009. After nearly four years, it had never actually moved past beta or been officially launched. One can imagine Facebook would have suffered from the same lack of care and feeding. It would also be hard to imagine Zuckerberg would have stuck around. The initial offer of $900 million (later upped to $1 billion) might have sounded enticing, but he would have lost more than half of that purchase price to taxes, had to pay off other initial investors and likely would have been stuck with a whole lot of Yahoo stock in lieu of cash. Had he taken the deal, it would have been merely a way to dump a hot property and move onto something new. Is there any scenario one can imagine where Zuckerberg would have survived as an employee of Carol Bartz? Even the most loyal Facebook users would have likely started to abandon ship. You can still find an old Facebook page called "If Mark Zuckerberg sells Facebook to Yahoo, I will quit." At one point it was followed by 3,000 friends. "Yahoo's interest will clearly not be the networking ability of college students, but rather information about our habits to refine their searches and add ad revenue," it reads. "Facebook will never be the same. Has it really come this far? Has this unique tool of social networking become a pawn in the corporate takeover scheme? Are we all ready to become stats to help Yahoo improve its search technology? "If we unanimously make this pledge to quit Facebook if the sale goes through, maybe we can change Yahoo's 'valuation' of Facebook, when they know millions of us will disappear the second they sign the check. After all, it won't be so hard for someone else to start up another Facebook clone anyway."
By all accounts, Steve Jobs' recent decision to step down as Apple's ( AAPL - Get Report) CEO was a well-planned, relatively drama-free transition of power to Tim Cook. Past power shifts were hardly so simple. Here's how history actually took place. After being bounced from the CEO position, Jobs and Apple fully parted ways in 1985 during a three-way battle between he, CEO John Sculley and the company's board of directors. Jobs headed off and, in addition to helping Pixar get off the ground, started NeXT Software. He tried to sell NeXT to Apple, pitching its technology as perfect for a new operating system. Apple said "yes," paid $400 million for the company and brought Jobs back into the family as an adviser. Once back in the fold, in 1997, Jobs finagled his way back to the corner office once CEO Gil Amelio was ousted by the board of directors. What would have happened if Jobs never returned? A better question might be what wouldn't have happened. Had Jobs decided against the NeXT deal, Apple would have probably gone instead with a competing product, BeOS, and struggled to sell consumers on such fare as the Newton, Performa and PowerBook. Without NeXT to build from, OS X and its feline-named successors wouldn't have happened. There would certainly have been an evolution of the OS, but unlikely the giant leap forward that happened under Jobs' watch. Without Jobs' penchant for design and bold moves, would Apple have dared enter the crowded market for MP3 players? Even if something like an iPod eventually emerged, would there have been an iTunes? It is unlikely, just as we might never have seen the iMac, Macbook, iPad or any of the other "it is kind of crazy, but it just might work" ideas Jobs fostered. Heck, we might still be packaging floppy disk drives with new PCs if Jobs hadn't decided they were obsolete when introducing the iMac. And, given Jobs' push away from rewritable media to Web-based data (hence the "i" for Internet prefix on everything) would we still be moving so rapidly into the "cloud?" Microsoft, hardly the most innovative of companies over the years, might have been even less forward-thinking without its longtime rival to push it. There also would also not be an Apple to invest in, meaning Microsoft's ability to push off the Justice Department would have failed and it would have been declared a monopoly and broken up into pieces. In some alternate universe, perhaps, Jobs' failure to return to Apple might have been a fatal blow to Microsoft as well.
Though the Apollo space program, which landed the first man on the moon in 1969, isn't a company-specific event, it has had a far-reaching impact on a number of companies, many of which have profited handsomely as a direct result. There is, of course, Tang. Developed by General Foods (and now owned by Kraft ( KFT)) as a fruit-flavored powder to be mixed with water in the late 1950s, it wasn't much of a success -- that is, until the Gemini and Apollo programs started including the powder among its rations and the public figured that if it was good enough for astronauts, it was good enough for their breakfast table. Today, in part because of its more recent introduction in emerging markets, Tang sales total more than $1 billion a year for Kraft. NASA touts numerous other business ventures that have emerged as a result of technology developed for, and as a result of, the moon missions. The agency refers to them as "spinoffs." Among the companies that participated directly with the Apollo missions or that have absorbed such companies over the years are IBM ( IBM - Get Report), Boeing ( BA - Get Report), Northrop Grumman ( NOC), United Technologies ( UTX - Get Report), Lockheed Martin ( LMT - Get Report), Whirlpool ( WHR - Get Report) (for in-flight kitchen equipment) and GM (which made the lunar rover). Various technologies have netted these companies billions over the decades. The moon boots worn by astronauts as they cruised the lunar surface were made using a plastic and foam material developed by DuPont. The stress-reducing, shock-absorbing substance was later adapted by Avia to improve upon running shoes, and similar technologies have been adapted by other athletic wear companies. Aerodynamic improvements crafted by NASA engineers over the years have also been incorporated into the designs of aircraft used by American Airlines ( AMR - Get Report) and Southwest Airlines ( LUV - Get Report). Specialized "winglets" are credited by Southwest for saving upward of 100,000 gallons of fuel each year, meaning the space agency has played a part in consumers' ability to pay less for travel. -- Written by Joe Mont in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com. Get more stock ideas and investing advice on our sister site, Stockpickr.com.