Yahoo Mail Comes Out of Its Social Shell

CEO Jerry Yang aims to make a more social Yahoo Mail, the starting point for everything users want to find online. 

Yahoo plans to regain some of the luster it lost to Google, Facebook and other Internet specialists with a two-headed attack aimed at making the Web more social and mobile.

By focusing on these two areas, Yahoo is attempting to solidify its position as the starting point for everything users want to find online, company co-founder and CEO Jerry Yang told the crowd at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Jan. 7.

Yang previewed a test version of the next generation of Yahoo Mail, code-named Inbox 2.0, which determines a user's most relevant personal connections across Yahoo and multiple social networks. The idea is to give Yahoo's more than 250 million Mail users a smarter application that prioritizes the most important messages from the most important people.

A test of Yang's inbox showed an aggregate count of his e-mail messages, instant messages, voice mails and text messages, along with a weather report and news headlines. By clicking a button called "simplify your inbox," Yang was able to see an aggregate count of not only his connections in Yahoo, but in the MySpace and LinkedIn social networks.

After clicking on the Yahoo account, the Mail application listed his most important connections first, including his wife and top Yahoo officials, based on Yang's frequency of accessing those connections. Upon returning to the Yahoo account page, Yang saw a list of messages ranked according to importance of the person.

Socializing e-mail makes sense; e-mail is the primary repository of social networks such as Facebook, Plaxo and LinkedIn, containing personal, family and business connections. Yahoo is looking to blend e-mail with social connections to keep users engaged and on Yahoo.

Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang said giving Web mail some social glue could bridge the gap between products that live on their own islands, set apart from events, photos, instant messaging and e-mail.

"By centralizing the main communications and aggregating on the Yahoo mail platform, the opportunity to centralize and add value to users is at hand," Owyang told eWEEK Jan. 8. "The challenge will be in Yahoo gently deploying these features, educating users and being flexible, changing the communication habits that users are accustomed to takes time."


To read more about Yahoo's social networking river, click here.

Yahoo also intends to open up its Mail Web e-mail application to let third parties and developers create and access applications, Yang said. While the right-hand side of the Mail screen showed Yang's accounts, the left-hand side offered a number of applications Yang could mash up, including Yahoo Maps and external widgets from eBay, MTV and Evite.

When Yahoo co-founder David Filo sent Yang a dinner suggestion via e-mail, Yang was able to drag and drop that invite from his inbox into Yahoo Maps to see not only where the restaurant was located in Las Vegas, but also ratings and other information about the establishment, as well as a preview of Filo's profile, listing his dining preferences.

The mashup then went and made similar connections for a relevant group of people in Yang's social graph, and Yang was able to invite them by dragging and dropping their profiles into the Evite application integrated in Yahoo Mail.

If Yahoo enjoys Facebook's good fortune—getting thousands of programmers building widgets for you—the possibilities to get users coming to Yahoo, and possible clicking on ads, are plentiful.

Gilbane Group analyst Geoffrey Bock said he thinks Yahoo is on to something important because our use of e-mail had been somewhat ossified by the focus on one-to-one, or one-to-many communication.

For consumers, Bock said Yahoo might be able to integrate with another address book or a calendar to help parents organize a play group or a kids' birthday party. However, he also said e-mail has to still ensure the privacy of the groups using it.

"What Yahoo needs to do is rethink the whole way in which social computing can help people in their everyday lives," Bock told eWEEK on Jan. 8.

In the long run, Yahoo could conceivably move this Mail mashup party to the mobile front, the company's other main point of attack going forward. Yang and company officials earlier unveiled the Sunnyvale, Calif., company's Mobile Developer Platform and Go 3.0 mobile service offering, as well as a redesigned mobile home page.

Yahoo's mobile software effort includes a plan to let consumers access widgets or light applications that they can use on almost any Web-based mobile phone, including Apple's iPhone, and any Web operating system, such as Google's Android platform.