Technology

Does the New Yahoo Mail Deliver?


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The revamp comes with abundant bells and whistles. But be warned: This is a product where beta truly means beta

A sizable chunk of the world entrusts its e-mail to Yahoo! (YHOO), which has become the market leader, with some 257 million accounts. But as it nears its 10th birthday, the service has grown quite long in the tooth, an adequate but ultra-retro product that virtually shouted, "I was cool in 1997!"

Last month, the Web portal unveiled a major redesign of its e-mail product, incorporating technology from Oddpost, its July, 2004 acquisition. The San Francisco company was a premium Web e-mail service that sought to bring the desktop application experience to Internet mail clients. No more boxes to check or uncheck for moving or deletions, pages to refresh, etc.

Yahoo's beta test of the new mail service actually rolled out in September, 2005, but had been restricted over the past year, mostly to former Oddpost users, Yahoo's broadband subscribers, and those who pay $19.99 a year for a premium version of the e-mail service. The Oddpost-cum-Yahoo interface, based on the Ajax Web programming system, was built around the notion of having a server send only that data which you're using or you request, leaving untouched on your screen the bits of a page not being used. That frees up bandwidth and processor resources to allow you faster Web driving.

Overload

That's the theory, at least. But in Yahoo's beta e-mail can be slow to load; scrolling or clicking to older messages is sometimes sluggish, which means you can spend moments staring at a "loading" message. Yahoo says the sluggishness is simply a matter of reorganizing mail's technical innards and doesn't indicate major operating hurdles to resolve. Indeed, a new iteration of Yahoo Mail and its underlying infrastructure that promises to deliver a speedier user experience is expected by yearend, says Ethan Diamond, Yahoo Mail's product management director and Oddpost co-founder.

Aesthetically, one must state the obvious: Yahoo's new three-pane e-mail design with drag-and-drop box features will remind users of other mail clients…er, Outlook. And not just a little. The new Yahoo Mail incorporates your contacts, calendar, and notes in the user interface, just like Outlook. Yet it's a cleaner design and more intuitive, if bulkier and more dilatory than some of its rivals—at least at this stage of its evolution. The new mail adds RSS bins to the lineup, allowing you to customize your subscriptions and check for new feeds whenever you query for new mail.

Yahoo's new e-mail system also offers tabbed navigation to let users open numerous e-mails and jump among them. No need to close one message to refer to another in the inbox or trash. Indeed, mail tabbing presented one of those so-called lightbulb moments for me: Why had I never been able to do this in e-mail before? This wonderful feature alone might help to mitigate any perturbation from when you're waiting on the program. I also like the new quick keys. Just hit the R key and you get a reply screen, or F if you want to forward. M will check for new mail, and N opens a new message window; control+enter sends your message. O.K., it's minor, but it saves time with the mouse.

Giant Step

There are a few annoyances with the beta version, to be sure. The new e-mail system works only with Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox browsers. That's not a major hassle, except that Microsoft (MSFT) no longer makes new versions of IE for the Macintosh OS. And because of the new navigation features, Yahoo Mail now places its advertising strip at the right of the screen, which is more imposing than in its former spot at the top. Diamond says his team is tinkering with alternative placements. Also, if you want to revert to the old mail and then back to the new, you must log out from Yahoo entirely.

All in all, Yahoo's Beta Mail is a different animal, moving gingerly toward a more sophisticated user interface through a technology that may still have a few kinks to smooth out in the e-mail realm. "We're not ready for mom and pop in Kansas to jump on this and feel comfortable right now…like they're using the old Yahoo Mail," says Diamond. And there's scant chance of that happening. But Yahoo pledges to retire the "beta" tag soon and operate a free e-mail client to help maintain its place in the field.

Bachman is deputy news director for BusinessWeek.com.

Later, Baby
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