At CES, Yahoo Digs in With Inbox 2.0

Yahoo may not be an Internet Goliath of the order that can be found in Mountain View, Calif., but CEO Jerry Yang isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.

After spending the first half of his keynote address at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on the open mobile initiatives announced today, Yang turned to the future, offering a glimpse into the company’s one-off plans to reaffirm itself as a choice destination on the Web.

While Yahoo continues to boast the highest traffic count of any site on the Web, it has been buffeted lately by a declining share of the search market, and industry analysts and commentators have been increasingly quick to sound the death knell for the 13 year-old Web portal.

As one would expect from a CES keynote, that negativism was nowhere to be found in Yang’s address, where he struck a tone that was upbeat and hopeful, discussing his vision to build a smarter, more open inbox through a widget program similar to that announced for mobile.

Yang’s address centered around the theme that Yahoo would become an “indispensable” Internet destination, essentially trying to capitalize on Yahoo’s portal status to recast it as the crossroads of the Web. To that end, Yang said that Yahoo would begin opening its desktop platform to developers.

“Yahoo’s goal is to be the simple starting point for a much richer and more complex world so you can get more out of it,” Yang said. “To be the best starting point, it’s clear that we need to open the Yahoo experience to any device or user.”

Reminding his audience that what he was about to show them was a concept, not a launch, he began his presentation of what could be termed “Inbox 2.0” – a smarter, more intuitive and social version of Yahoo’s existing webmail that can understand and interpret all of the interactions that users have across their various networks and devices.

The key to this aggregated inbox is openness, where third-party companies could create widgets that would integrate into a user’s Yahoo account. The universal inbox that Yang envisions would be a one-stop communications hub where users could check e-mail, voicemail, instant messages and text messages, as well as link to all the networks to which they belong.

By culling together and analyzing all of a user’s relationships (who’s in whose network on MySpace, LinkedIn, etc.) the smarter inbox that Yang envisions could prioritize a user’s contacts, placing at the top the ones whose social graphs are most similar.

“Concept” status aside, Yahoo’s inbox of tomorrow is more than just a pretty idea; an assistant projected screen images from a laptop as Yang was speaking so the audience could get a glimpse of what it actually looks like.

The new inbox would also be able to follow the thread of a conversation between several contacts. In Yang’s example, several top-level Yahoo executives were trying to figure out where to grab dinner in Las Vegas. By interpreting the preferences expressed by each person in their various communiqués, the inbox was able to recommend a restaurant and then put out an Evite to all parties in the thread. The latter feature would be a product of the open developer platform that would be certain to attract companies like Evite, Yang said.

Yahoo’s mapping feature would play a key role in the smarter inbox. Back to the restaurant example, a user could drag a message from a friend suggesting a restaurant and drop it on Yahoo Maps mapping application, and a map would appear with the restaurant highlighted as the destination, complete with Web links to a menu, reviews and any other relevant information.

Another feature on the souped-up mapping service Yang showcased was Yahoo Tags, a button users could click to make tags of places that other users had recommended through their various Web interactions that the smarter inbox would be able to aggregate. The most popular locations appeared in the largest font, and clicking on them could bring up Flickr photos or other information about the place.

Yang closed his speech with a word on Yahoo’s twin approach to the future of the portal, saying that the goal was to use a “very simple interface to do some pretty complex things.”

Joining Yang on stage at the end of the address was David Filo, with whom he co-founded the company.

“Yahoo has today outlined what is possible and that future is not that far away,” Filo said. “Yahoo is uniquely positioned to make this all a reality – we have scale, a huge community of users, great applications and APIs and insightful data.”

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