"Jerry, how can we miss you if you won't go away?"

Such was the refrain from Yahoo investors for months on end, who could only watch helplessly as the company lost $20 billion in value under the reign of Jerry Yang.

Sure, it's not all Yang's fault. The economy cratered at a time when Yahoo could least afford it and Google's ascent to the top of the web search engine mountaintop didn't give Yahoo a lot of room to maneuver.

But tell that to Yahoo shareholders today, many of whom are ecstatic - or whatever passes for ecstatic these days -- as the news of Yang's imminent departure as CEO of Yahoo has triggered a 14% run-up in the value of Yahoo's stock today in early trading.

As a lot of pundits are saying, perhaps Yang's departure is the best move he's ever made as head of Yahoo. In the 17 months Yang has been running the company, Yahoo has lost an obscene amount of value - that $20 billion I mentioned above. In the hours after Yang admitted he was in over his head and resigned (my interpretation and not his exact words) Yahoo's stock rose from $10.50 per share to over $12 per share - a $2 billion hike in the company's value, according to Wall Street analysts.

Some of that excitement is no doubt linked to the possibility that, with Yang out of the picture, negotiations with Microsoft over a Yahoo buyout will be put back on the front burner. I'm not so sure about that - - Microsoft seemed pretty adamant about not getting back into bed with Yahoo a few weeks back - the last time Steve Ballmer made a statement about the idea of a merger. That said, Yang was the chief barrier to a deal last spring, and now that he's gone, who's to say what Microsoft will do, especially now that it could probably get Yahoo at a significantly lower price? (It's original offer was in the $32-per-share range; a $47.5 billion deal overall.)

Yang will stay on at Yahoo as chief strategist but he sounds almost apologetic on his way out of the CEO suite. "From founding this company to guiding its growth into a trusted global brand that is indispensable to millions of people, I have always sought to do what is best for our franchise. All of you know that I have always, and will always bleed purple," Yang wrote in an email to yahoo employees this week, referring to Yahoo's corporate color.

Wall Street gurus say that the move was a too long in coming, but better late than never.
"Jerry was miscast in this CEO role as far as running Yahoo at this point," Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities, told Reuters today. "He's much better off running strategy or technology behind the scenes. (But just) because he's stepping down doesn't mean the company is going to magically be wonderful again," he said.

Don't look for Yahoo to assign a new CEO right away - it's a lousy environment for a CEO flip anyway, given the sour economy, and we can expect the search committee to take one-, two- or even three-months to tap a new CEO. Analysts listed several executives as potential candidates for the job, including former AOL chief Jon Miller, News Corp President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin, former eBay Inc Chief Executive Meg Whitman, former Yahoo COO Dan Rosensweig and Yahoo President Sue Decker.

CNNMoney.com has a nice take on the future of Yahoo post-Jerry Yang. Specifically columnist Om Malik offers the following "do's and don'ts" for Yahoo going forward . . .

"Regardless of company’s final choice, here is what Yahoo shouldn’t do:"

-- Not hire from within, for the current senior management has proven to ineffectual and share the blame for Yahoo’s current misfortunes.
-- Sell out to Microsoft at today’s prices. ($20-a-share would be something the company should seriously consider.)
-- Merge with AOL, for that would be like tying too bricks with spider web, hoping that it would float.

What it should do:

-- Look outside for someone with spark.
-- Replace the current senior team with executives.
-- Refocus Yahoo on the very qualities that made it great – building technology products for the common people.
-- Focus its energies on Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports, My Yahoo, Yahoo Mail, Flickr, Yahoo Messenger and Yahoo Search as well as Yahoo’s e-commerce platform.
-- Keep building on its Mobile offerings, for this is one area where its independence can help it win friends amongst operators who are worried about Google, Microsoft, and Apple.
Yahoo’s ad-serving platform needs to become more real-time with a drastic improvement in customer service.

Sums up UBS Investment Research’s Internet analyst Ben Schachter …"We expect the Board will ultimately opt for an external candidate as (an internal choice) would likely not be considered a significant enough change by investors. The news may also indicate the Board will push for a more meaningful restructuring of YHOO. Finally, the news will clearly reignite speculation around a potential deal w/MSFT (for a search-only deal or full acquisition) as well as potential other M&A activity. …We still believe MSFT will eventually own YHOO. Jerry moving out of the CEO role may accelerate this. YHOO is a key strategic asset in the online space and given the scarcity of key players of size, we see value here not reflected in the stock’s current valuation."

Raise a toast, then, to Jerry Yang; Yahoo's $20 billion man. All of a sudden, for Yang and the company he loves, the future really is now.