Yahoo! launches new Web-based mail, a vast improvement over Gmail
By Charlene Li
Today, Yahoo! announced a limited beta test of its new Web-based mail product, integrating technology obtained from their acquisition of Oddpost last July. It took a while, but the results are beautiful. (Note: the beta is by invite only -- I've included screenshots for those without access).
The idea is to make Web-based mail resemble more of a client-like experience with the main benefit being to reduce refresh time. I’ve been a long-time user of Yahoo! Mail Plus for my personal email, but have been reading the mail through Outlook because I couldn’t stand the refresh time. The new beta *almost* makes it as seamless as Outlook, and I’m seriously considering giving up using Outlook to be able to always have my personal email accessible to me, wherever I am.
Here are a few of the details, as well as screenshots (provided by Yahoo!). I’ll focus in particular on ways how it differs from the other really cool email program out on the market, namely, Google’s Gmail (note: Earthlink also has a similar client-like approach in beta, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet – I’ll update this post once I do).
- Client-like performance. Glory be, no more waiting for interminable refreshes! Opening emails are almost instantaneous, as are tasks like composing and replying to emails. I especially liked the reply function compared to Gmail, as I didn’t need to scroll down to the bottom of the email message to find the reply button. In terms of overall performance, I did find Gmail’s functionality to be slightly faster than Yahoo!, but only by a split second – there’s always a very slight pause between when I clicked on a Yahoo! button and execution.
- Drag and drop functionality. I can select multiple messages and drag them all into a folder. Gmail users can “label” multiple messages at a time, but it requires a separate action to then archive them to remove them from the Inbox.
- Preview pane. Just as in Outlook, there are three windows in the interface, versus the two that exist today in Yahoo! Mail and Gmail. So a user can see the folder, the inbox, and a third preview pane. Gmail does provide a short snippet of text right within the inbox, which is helpful. The benefit with Gmail is that you get that snippet without having to highlight the email. But for traditional email client users, the traditional preview pane offered by Yahoo! in the new Mail beta will be very familiar and useful.
- Tabbed interface. Power email users typically have multiple emails open at a time, for example, they may be reading an email and composing another one at the same time. Yahoo! users tabs to manage different activities – so when you compose a new email, a new tab opens. And these tabs are smart – they rename themselves based on the subject as you type.
- Right mouse button and keyboard shortcuts. For me, the mark of an application versus Web-page are these customized shortcuts. For example, a routine activity I do with email is to mark them for follow-up. In the new Yahoo! Mail, I can right click to mark it follow-up. In Gmail, I have to 1) select the message’s check box; 2) move my mouse up to a drop down menu; 3) click on “add a star”
- Scroll through all mail messages. One nice feature is the ability to see all messages in the inbox or folder – not just the first 50 messages. It wasn’t instantaneous – I had to wait a split second for the messages to load. But then again, I was scrolling through my spam folder, which contained over 600 messages! It was pretty darn impressive. Gmail was also very quick to refresh the pages, but I could only see 50 messages per page at time, versus the continuous scrolling available on the new Yahoo! Mail.
- Email search. Yahoo! has a much improved email search built into the new interface. Like Gmail, the search results in Yahoo! show snippets of the email content. But it also shows small thumbnails of attachments, which is pretty useful.
Overall, I think the Yahoo! Mail experience is excellent and will prove to be popular for people who already use Outlook. But Yahoo!’s strategy isn’t necessarily focused on stealing share from Google or its more formidable email competitor, Hotmail. Rather, I believe it’s to strengthen the loyalty of its existing users, and to encourage them to use Yahoo! Mail on a more regular, consistent basis.
This is because email is one of the three cornerstone entry points to the Yahoo! (the others being the home page and the My Yahoo! page). By improving the email experience, Yahoo! encourage greater usage (including people like me who may have been using the POP service in order to use Outlook). By keeping email users on the Web rather than within a client, Yahoo! can encourage users to try other features like Web search (which it can then monetize).
And Web-based email is becoming more and more important – according to Forrester’s Consumer Technographics research, 31% of North American online households use Web-based email at least once a week, up from 27% a year ago.
Yahoo! Mail competitors have their work cut out for them. Gmail may be the darling of the digerati, but I believe Yahoo! Mail offers a pretty compelling alternative, especially when combined with the ability to host your own personal domain (which is the main reason why I use Yahoo! Mail Plus). Gmail also has a major problem in the way it is constructed, in that it doesn’t use the traditional Outlook-esque interface of three-panes and email controls at the top of the page. And then there’s Hotmail. Given the expertise in-house with Outlook, you can expect that MSN will introduce a Web-based, client-like email experience to the market soon as well.
One problem Yahoo! faces is how quickly it will roll out the new interface and if/when it will switch over to the new platform entirely. For the technologically adept, it will be an easy switch…but for many mainstream consumers, the switch to an entirely new interface could be discombobulating. Yahoo! will have to offer both interfaces for quite a while, and potentially introduce some of the DHTML and AJAX functionality into the mainstream Mail user interface to help ease the transition.
Update: Quick clarification - the new Mail beta is by invite only *from Yahoo!*. They have invited a small group of heavy Yahoo! Mail users as well as everyone who has been a loyal Oddpost user (and a few reporters/analysts). So unfortunately, I don't have any invites to give out. If/when they are available, I'll be sure to let all of you Yahoo! fans out there know!