Yahoo Plans to Launch a Mail App Platform

41 Comments

1Yahoo, the beleaguered web giant, is planning to launch a new program that essentially turns its email offering into a platform on which to run applications, much in the same way Facebook does, according to some of my sources. Yahoo (s yhoo) is keeping a tight lid on its plans, but I’ve managed to gather some interesting details.

The program is expected to launch in beta relatively soon with half a dozen small applications running in a sidebar inside the Yahoo mail client (Evite is one of the services that is said to be building a nano-app for this new Yahoo Mail-as-a-platform). Users’ address books would act as a social graph, essentially turning Yahoo Mail into the basis of a whole new social networking experience.

Last fall, I pointed out that the only way for Yahoo or Google (s goog) to challenge the social networking incumbents like Facebook was to leverage their email infrastructure. Using email to build social experiences was first figured out by startups such as Xobni and my personal favorite, Xoopit. With relationship buckets pre-defined by the address book, which contains everything from web-based addresses to geo-local data (physical address) to mobile numbers, email clients are already rich with the very data set that Facebook is so desperately trying to build — and hoard.

In November 2007, a senior executive at Yahoo told The New York Times about the company’s plans to use email as the starting point of a social experience, dubbing it “Inbox 2.0.” “There will be some sort of profile system attached to Inbox 2.0,” said Brad Garlinghouse, who was at the time running Yahoo’s communications business. He went on to add, “The profile page is where you can expose what you want people to know about you.”

Garlinghouse, well known for writing the so-called “Peanut Butter Manifesto,” has since left the company, but Yahoo has been building on the Inbox 2.0 idea, most recently launching such a profile effort as part of its Yahoo Open strategy. The launch of the Mail-as-a-platform would help the company fully realize its Inbox 2.0 vision.

With its more than 200 million email subscribers, Yahoo has an unique opportunity with this platform. In particular, it plays to Yahoo’s strength in making complex technologies simple for a mass market audience, a trick Google is still struggling to master.

Of course, its success will depends on a number of things, such as developers feeling comfortable enough with Yahoo’s migraine-inducing policies and inspired enough to come up with applications that are useful — and don’t involve vampire bites and throwing virtual snowballs.

Yahoo also has to overcome its own culture of consensus (or confusion). If it does, this could be the start of a long climb back for a company that is currently viewed as a laggard.

41 Comments

Ginrod

It would make sense that the internet would advance email in ways we could never imagine. After all, email is the oldest yet most relied upon internet application. Aside from this announcement however, apps such as 2pad have been used in the past year for all email accounts for private photo galleries and email mining.

Brad Cooper

If anyone from Yahoo! is reading this, let us know if you are still looking for integration partners ;-)

Email hasn’t really changed much in 15 years and it’s especially hard to use for groups. Wikis and listservs are even more archaic for sending and receiving basic information. Kudos to Yahoo! and others for trying to bring email into the 21st Century. By the way, also try SmartMessage Center from CircleUp *shameless plug* ;-)

@Jacob

“Yahoo products are much more user friendly and well-integrated.”

This is true for the over 50 crowd, but the future embraces Google. Yahoo only grows because the web is still growing, but look at what the next generation is using. The generation that depends on the web for everything appreciates Google. It’s a Google world.

Shadowlayer

Well I always wondered why FB didn’t offer an email service instead of all the me-too, memory intensive services like photos and video (which they could outsource to flickr and youtube for free) that seem uncapable to generate revenue for the time being.

Glad to see some common sense from Y!…

Gadget Sleuth

Yahoo’s new thing sounds interesting, but at the same time it sounds a little desperate, like they’re throwing all their chips in and seeing what “wins”. They need to do something, lest they be swallowed by Google, I suppose.

Omar Nawaz

I wonder if Zimbra’s platform will have a role in it. Zimbra already has API to integrate other applications and a better integrated scheduling.

For a social at least four key ingredients are: e-mail, address book, and calendar and ability to share them. Thoughts?

Geva Perry

Folks — You have to give credit where credit is due. There is a big difference between putting widgets on the Gmail sidebar, and what Yahoo is working on here, which is using their mail app as a Platform-as-a-Service framework. If anything, it’s closer to the Facebook platform or Force.com.

I’m impressed.

Blog: http://gevaperry.typepad.com

thegeniusfiles

Yahoo has a lot of hot properties: MyBloLog, delicious, Flickr, Pipes. Better integrations than Google. But their email sucks compared to Gmail. It is almost unusable. They need a total overhaul of the user interface. If they don’t do that, then plugging in a few gadgets won’t do much to help.

Vasudev Ram

Sounds like a potentially good idea – though of course details mentioned in the post are thin as of now. I guess more details will be given by Yahoo! later.

BTW, the idea of using mail servers programmatically is not new – the mailing list servers LISTSERV and majordomo (which may even pre-date Web 1.0, i.e. pre-1990 or so) are proof of that. (Briefly: when a mail is sent to them, it doesn’t get read by a human; it gets read by a computer program (either LISTSERV or majordomo); and those programs then interpret the (structured) contents of the mail as commands related to the mailing list, and then act upon them – doing things like subscribing a user to a list, posting a message to the list, etc.).

I had been thinking about this topic recently – programmable mail servers and how they can be used (for other than the existing uses such as running mailing lists). Ditto for programmable web servers. I may write more on this second topic later (on my blog on the topic of software innovation at http://jugad2.blogspot.com), but for now, a hint – check out the programmable web servers WEBrick and Mongrel (both are related to, and programmable in, Ruby) and Python’s BaseHTTPServer (which is programmable in Python). I’m sure there are other web servers that are programmable in other languages. Any developer will be able to see how powerful such programmable servers are.

Also, this question on the Google Group comp.lang.ruby:

http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.ruby/browse_thread/thread/29514a637cbf7cf3/7a28319460bf4f56?pli=1

by a developer, and my answer to it, describe some of the steps involved in programming a web server like the ones mentioned above.

Basically, the power of these programmable tools comes from the fact that they can be programmed to do anything, and do it in the context of a mail server (i.e. receiving and sending email), or in the context of a web server (receiving HTTP requests and sending HTTP responses), respectively. Which makes them very powerful tools …

Om Malik

@Niall Kennedy,

The difference between what you are saying and what I wrote, is that I am trying to talk about the pending launch of the Yahoo Mail as a Platform relatively soon. Perhaps later this month. Thanks for the links anyway.

Niall Kennedy

It’s not a secret plan requiring inside sources. Yahoo! announced OpenMail as part of its Y!OS strategy last April at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. They then followed-up with specs on the new developer platform at Yahoo! Open Hack Day in September including a developer competition for the best OpenMail app.

Web 2.0 presentation video by Air Balogh of Yahoo! is available over on O’Reilly’s Blip.tv account. Mail apps with early mockups are shown approximately 7 minutes and again at 10 minutes in.

OpenMail app target is also mentioned on Cody Simms’ public slides from Open Hack Day on slide 28. Look for the panda logo.

Like all things Y!OS the app targets will receive a gradual roll-out with testing in small batches before hitting “beta” or later.

kaizyen

The email integration was unveiled and available to developers back at their Hack Day in September, there was a good amount of excitement.

What Yahoo! is planning is pretty cool and will start out with some limitations for developers, mostly around attachments, but evolve over time.

As far as being “behind Google”.., I would not fully agree with that. They were the first to release a fully functional dev API into their mail system about two years ago at the last Open Hack Day in Sunnyvale.

As much as Google is the dominant search engine when it comes to volume and revenue they are also the dominant PR engine as well, lets not confuse hype with actual value to developers.

Jacob Varghese

They are failing not because of a lack of features in their applications, but because Google has dominated search and therefore search advertising. Most people will not dare to use any other search engines.

Yahoo products are much more user friendly and well-integrated.

geewhiz

They are failing as a company because they are always several steps behind Google.

Niraj

It seems like they’re a step behind Google on this one…granted Google has only released such features in Gmail Labs so far, but with the calendar and ability to add any gadget into the sidebar, it’s only a matter of time before Gmail resembles iGoogle. Google’s been adjusting how they handle contact autodiscovery too, so I’m sure that they’ve got the same idea when it comes to making mail more social.

All that said, I’m interested to know how many people will go for the idea. It’s nice being able to chat (and even video chat) while in Gmail, but planning events and doing more complicated social interactions like activity feeds?

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