Yahoo! delivers on the promise of AJAX

I hinted in my last post that one consumer company is showing signs of embracing the “just like the desktop” AJAX approach. That company is Yahoo!


First, read this review of Yahoo! email that was posted in the Wall St Journal, “Yahoo Email delivers that desktop feel most users expect
Some choice quotes from the review:
My verdict: The new Yahoo Mail is far superior to Gmail. Yahoo more closely matches the desktop experience most serious email users have come to expect. Gmail, by contrast, is quirky and limited.
The new version is radically easier to use. For example, there’s a preview pane, just as in desktop programs, that allows you to view the contents of an email without opening it. You can open multiple emails at once. You can drop messages into folders you create. You can right-click on various items to see short menus of useful tasks, like “add sender to address book.” You can delete multiple messages at once by selecting them and clicking on a trash-can icon.
By contrast, Gmail has none of these new, fluid, desktop-like features. You can’t scroll through all of your messages’ headers without loading a new Web page. And there’s no preview pane, only a feature that shows a snippet of the content of an email. […]
But Gmail’s limitations go beyond this. On several key issues, Google’s engineers have decreed that familiar email practices are no longer useful, and have substituted approaches they prefer, arrogantly denying users any choice.

I haven’t played with the new Yahoo! mail myself, but I have seen several demos of oddpost (the email client that is the basis of Yahoo! mail) and it is truly a comparable experience to Microsoft Outlook. All of the conventions are observed, the layout is the same, it’s really a straight-forward port of the application to AJAX, with some webish features (like RSS integration) built in.
Data point 2: Yahoo! recently poached Bill Scott, the co-developer of the RICO framework, from Sabre Systems, to work as an ‘AJAX Evangelist”. RICO stands out among all the open-source AJAX frameworks out there in that 1)it’s origins are from a corporate IT environment, and 2)it’s strength is a collection of widgets that are direct analogs of the widgets you find in desktop applications (especially data grids).
Data point 3: Yahoo! recently formed a DHTML/Ajax Evangelist team whose mission is to ensure the propogation of all things rich & ajax throughout all of Yahoo! Some of the team members (besides Bill Scott) include Iain Lamb, co-founder of Oddpost and Douglas Crockford, creator of JSON.
The picture that emerges from these three data points is a company that is aggressively investing in the idea of DHTML applications that look and feel very similar to desktop applications. Very different from the google vision of developing applications that are “revolutionary” and “completely different from anything you’ve ever seen”. It’s a mature vision, a practical vision, and I think it has a lot of promise.

9 thoughts on “Yahoo! delivers on the promise of AJAX

  1. david September 29, 2005 / 7:02 pm

    Hi Jonathan,
    Yahoo is also investing heavily in Flash Platform applications and has an internal evangelist for this as well (and probably many other things). They have some awesome people in this technology arena as well. (Comparable in stature to the AJAX folks you mention.) I think Yahoo is indeed investing heavily in Web 2.0 and rich user experiences, but asynchronous Flash vs asynchronous DHTML are two implementation details, not to be conflated with the core trend: the focus on improving the user experience through a more desktop-like/interactive/rich experience.
    -David
    Macromedia

  2. Joe Potenza September 30, 2005 / 12:24 pm

    GMail has been out for a long time without any MAJOR changes. They’ve added features, but don’t you think that Google’s got something very big brewing? (see that calendar.google.com appears to be launching shortly).

  3. jon September 30, 2005 / 1:03 pm

    Hey David,
    Cool! That’s good to hear.
    I know that flash is part of Flickr, and is presumably a core part of the Yahoo! multimedia strategy (I have heard this from multiple sources). Given that yahoo is trending towards being a massive multimedia company, and Flash is the best multimedia client out there, this is a huge oportunity for you guys.
    In this respect I think Flash and AJAX have different (and complimentary) strengths, and aren’t really the same thing at all.

  4. jon September 30, 2005 / 1:39 pm

    Joe,
    My point isn’t that google won’t do amazing things with AJAX in the next year.
    My point is that those amazing new apps won’t look and feel “just like desktop applications”.
    There’s much less glory for designers and engineers in going down the “just like desktop applications” path (since you don’t invent any new UI conventions or widgetry). But (as the NYT article I linked to shows) it might just be the key to creating applications that users can immediately adopt and use effectively.
    My point is not “Yahoo does better AJAX than Google”. My point is “Yahoo’s vision of AJAX is more similar to current desktop software than Google’s”. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. But it’s certainly up for debate!

  5. Adam Selene September 30, 2005 / 3:07 pm

    Took long enough for a company to embrace this.
    Microsoft created an AJAX version of Outlook Web Access in 2000, that was a literal port of Outlook as a web application, with most of the features mentioned above.
    Curious, does Yahoo!’s interface work in both Internet Explorer and Firefox, or only the former?
    It was Firefox that seemed to get Google on the AJAX path. Until then AJAX was shunned as something “Internet Explorer/Microsoft proprietary”.

  6. jon September 30, 2005 / 4:50 pm

    Yahoo! mail works on both IE and Firefox.
    That was what took them 18 months after buying the application from oddpost!

  7. Scott Barnes September 30, 2005 / 5:39 pm

    My overall question for all these email fight-outs is this: “Whats your point of difference”.
    GMAIL may not have the bells and whistles but there is only one reason I got one… HDD space it was the first at the time to offer gb’s of data for free (i’ve used 700mb so far).
    Yet, I’m reluctant to move to any new “kid on the block” as in reality there is no real point of difference.
    I mean, whats the aim? to emulate Outlook 100% over the web? Can you not get that now with Outlook Web? where is the point in which we move forward from this “been done to death” concept and reach a little higher.
    Example:
    What is content for an email client? pop3? RSS? ATOM? .. isn’t the way we communicate online changing to what it was, as we no longer treat email as basic messaging back and forth. We treat it in a variety of ways.
    How about we get video messaging? Flash technology is sitting there waiting?
    I want my fav blogs to send me messages when they update along with a description much like MXNA or other aggs.
    Theres a million ways email is being shifted and twisted and the best thing that we can see online is “We are so damn close to a web-based outlook”
    AJAX is a one trick poney, its limited by the browsers implementation and is going to sufficate its growth potential by this technology.

  8. jon September 30, 2005 / 9:17 pm

    Scott,
    That’s exactly the question we have to wrestle with. Is it better to build radically new stuff (given the amazing potential of technology) or be more conservative (given the incredibly limited capacity of users to absorb new UI paradigms).
    I know for a fact that joe user does NOT want to have to do any learning when he sits down to a new email client. So if you’re going to make him learn something, it better have a real, palpable, immediate payback.

  9. Bill Scott October 1, 2005 / 12:00 am

    Jon, thanks for the vote of confidence.
    Just so no one thinks that the DHTML/Ajax tiger team is single-handedly bringing Ajax to all of Yahoo– you should know that we (the tiger team) are delighted almost on a daily basis by what fellow Yahoos are already creating with Ajax/DHTML. In a lot of cases we are simply finding out about what cool things they are doing. Lots of cool stuff around the corner…
    And let me also add a note about Flash (in agreement with David from Macromedia.) I have the privilege of working closely with Justin Everett-Church (http://justin.everett-church.com), Yahoo!’s Flash Evangelist. Yahoo!’s position is to create immersive& rich experiences for our users. Whether it is Ajax or Flash.
    In fact recently, we went in to a meeting with a team to help them think through how they would use Ajax for their particular Y! property. It was obvious that Flash was a better fit and so we (the Ajax team) surprised them by recommending Flash instead.
    That’s exciting for me. We are trying to be intelligent about our use of the two technologies and are working hard to ensure they play well together.
    Look for some very exciting uses of Flash as well as Ajax in the future from Yahoo!

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