Yahoo Readies Mail Update

When you finally get a chance to see the new Yahoo Mail in action and say, “Boy, this looks a lot like like my desktop e-mail,” you’re going to make a lot of company officials smile.

The intent behind Yahoo’s next-generation Web mail service is to blur the lines between desktop e-mail applications like Microsoft’s Outlook or Mozilla’s Thunderbird and Web-based e-mail.

The Sunnyvale, Calif., portal giant is weeks from the last phase of closed beta tests for a revitalized Mail offering, which leverages the Ajax style of Web development that’s been so popular this year. The launch is only the latest step in a three-way fight for popularity in the Internet portal arena among Yahoo, Microsoft and Google .

Yahoo will begin tests in the coming weeks of the advertising model they intend to use in the next-generation version of Yahoo Mail. Ethan Diamond, Yahoo Mail product manager, said its general availability depends on the results of those tests, though they don’t expect it to remain in beta a long time.

“We have to make sure that the advertising model really fits and does just as well as the original one,” Diamond said.

Advertising revenue is a key consideration for the Internet portal giant. In the last quarter, Yahoo reported $1.16 billion in revenues from ads, up 46 percent year-over-year from 2004.

Because Yahoo policy prohibits scanning user e-mails to display contextual ads, a policy that landed Google in hot water last year, officials intend to continue with essentially the same advertising layout as the original. However, changes to the interface are prompting some shuffling in how they are displayed.

Yahoo Mail Plus users who spend $19.95 annually for extra Web mail services will still be spared from ads appearing in the Web mail service, officials said.

The new Yahoo Mail looks much like what people have come to expect from desktop e-mail clients, featuring the three-part folder, message header and preview panes. It’s also a huge step up in functionality when compared to its existing Mail service and Microsoft’s Hotmail, largely thanks to its incorporation of AJAX-style techniques for viewing Web pages.

Gone is the need to click on a link to go to a new page with the e-mails content. The user can either view the message through the preview pane or double-click to see the full message. When finished, you can delete the message using the “delete” key on the keyboard — no more endless clicks on check boxes.

Desktop-like functionality abounds in the new Web mail system by Yahoo. Besides the ability to use keyboard keys to open documents or delete them, users can drag and drop messages from the inbox into customized folders. Normally, Web mail clients display 25 e-mail message subjects per page before requiring you to hit the “Next” page; the beta loads e-mail messages on the fly, allowing you to scroll through your entire folder from one page.

The one desktop feature still lacking in Yahoo’s new Mail service is a robust filtering option. Sure, you can go to the “Mail Options” page and manually enter a filter through the service, but it’s much more time-consuming than the filtering options in either Outlook, Eudora or Thunderbird.

The expertise to pull off the Web mail overhaul comes from Yahoo’s acquisition last year of Web mail startup Oddpost, which uses DHTML and DOM techniques to pull off the asynchronous data retrieval techniques.

Instead of going to the server for every request on a Web page, the necessary information is cached on the end user’s side. When information is needed, such as the contents of a particular e-mail, the service requests the information from the server without affecting the state of the Web page. This allows for much smoother operations and is a boon for dial-up users who have to wait for the Web server to redraw the entire page.

The desktop functionality of the Web mail service is just the latest in a number of attempts by Yahoo, Microsoft and Google to win over and keep users on its platform.

The first real salvo in the hearts-and-minds battle began in earnest last year when Google’s GMail was launched with 1 GB of storage space. It forced the others to boost the storage capacity of their own Web mail services to stay on par.

Marcel Nienhuis, a market analyst at research firm Radicati Group, said user interface and functionality improvements to Web mail services has become the new point of contention between the companies to win and retain customers.

In a market that’s extremely competitive Web sites need to act like a start up he said, constantly innovating and updating their services.

“If any of them slip behind the competition they put themselves in danger of looking like an out-of-date company that’s not innovating,” he said.

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