Yahoo! Mail: the past, present and future

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yahoo-y.jpgBack in October last year, we previewed a lot of the changes that Yahoo! would be making in 2009, including some of the changes they’d be making to their webmail product.

Well, this morning I descended into the depths of Yahoo! HQ in central London to meet the Head of Mail for Europe, David McDowell. We spoke wide-rangingly, but most of the chat focused on extra detail on what will be happening to Yahoo! Mail in the next two months or so.

Losing Popularity

It turns out that the introduction of a new, slick, interface proved unpopular with users. The javascript-heavy frontend might have proved usable when running locally, but on many users’ PCs it crawled. Yahoo! started losing marketshare, dipping down several percentage points, which in the mature market of email means trouble.

So, acting nimbly, the big Y! jumped into action, stripping down the features and lightening the application considerably. Out went the snazzy RSS reader that less than one percent of people actually used. A vocal minority complained, but the users started to trickle back. They also put a lot of work into speeding up the code and now Yahoo! is back to 39% marketshare – higher than it’s been in a year.

RSS

Why didn’t people like RSS? McDowell said: “It boils down to narrowcast and broadcast. Most people will tell you that they like customisation and personalisation, but most people will not make the (time) investment to make that happen.” Yahoo found that people couldn’t be bothered to set it up.

But they haven’t given up on RSS. I suggested that the company should use the ‘social graph’ that it has for each user – where it can work out who a user’s friends are by how much they interact with different people – to suggest relevant blog content. “The user says: if you can (set up an RSS feed) on my behalf, in a transparent way,” McDowell concurred, “then that would be very beneficial”.

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Mobile

We also talked about mobile. Somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of Yahoo! Mail’s users take advantage of the wide range of mobile clients available to access their email on the go.

Yahoo! wants to pump that up, though, and users will soon have the ability to visit a website on their phones where the company can auto-detect the best experience they’ll be able to get, and point them to the relevant bit of the site. People with smartphones will get downloadable apps, but less capable handsets will be pointed to the HTML version.

Resolution

Lastly, I asked McDowell about a couple of common complaints about Yahoo! Mail’s service. Firstly that the screen resolution limits are too restrictive – users of netbooks with resolutions below 1024×768 can’t get the shiny new interface and have to use the ancient HTML version.

Apparently the company aren’t too bothered about that – seeing it more as a feature: “The application is like a desktop application. So, if the resolution gets too small then the elements just merge and you can’t see what’s going on.” McDowell continued, “We’re the only big email provider to offer two distinct products – they meet two different sets of needs.”

Usernames

Secondly, I asked why users were forced to choose between .com and .co.uk addresses – with many wanting to receive UK content on most of the site, but sticking with a .com address because it’s easier for people to remember. McDowell acknowledged that this is an issue and they’re addressing it:

“Coming up very soon, users will be able to register .com addresses but still get UK content, and then they’ll be able to go into options and choose if they want any email that’s sent to username@yahoo.anything”.

That’s a great step forward for usability, especially as it’s currently impossible to register a .com username if you’ve already got the corresponding .co.uk.

Conclusions

Yahoo!’s working on bringing users a smarter, faster and more social inbox. It’s still a very ‘traditional’ approach to email, especially when compared to GMails tags, conversational threading and labs features, but it’s probably the best ‘traditional’ webmail client out there. It doesn’t scan messages for advertising reasons, unlike Google, it offers fully infinite storage and McDowell is adamant that people still like filing emails into folders.

I’m not about to jump and go grab a Yahoo! mail account – I’m very happy with my GMail – but if you’ve tried Google’s client and you didn’t like it, then Yahoo! is probably the next best thing. It’s just a shame that Yahoo!’s userbase isn’t really ready for RSS yet.

Yahoo! Mail

Duncan Geere