Even though it’s is one of the biggest free email providers, Yahoo! is rarely featured in the tech news – well, except when it’s down. This recent outage seems to be related to the roll-out of a new version for the online service, a “new beta”. I received a service announcement last month asking me to opt-in to the upgrade; the new version will be made available gradually for all users, in the coming months.
Thank you for being a Yahoo! Mail user for the past 10 year(s). We look forward to bringing you an even faster, safer, easier-to-use Yahoo! Mail very soon.
In the coming months, we will ask you to upgrade to the newest version of Yahoo! Mail for your account. All Yahoo! Mail customers will be asked to upgrade. But in the meantime, you don't have to wait, you can have the newest Yahoo! Mail today.
In terms of new features, this update doesn’t bring many innovations. The official announcement bolsters more speed, better spam protection and “never-ending storage”; in my experience the responsiveness has indeed improved – it even works faster that the simple “classic” version –, but the spam protection not so much – as you can see in the screenshot below. The “infinite” storage is of course nothing new and not dependent of the interface you choose. The integration with Facebook is now even tighter: whereas with the current version you could follow the news feed inside Yahoo! Mail, the beta brings Facebook chat to the inbox, alongside the already available Yahoo! Messenger.
On the other hand, the interface is much cleaner and more pleasant to use than before. The actions related to mail have been reorganized into tabs and the left sidebar: the contacts and social updates have their own tabs now and the first tab you see upon login is the ‘Inbox’ instead of ‘What’s new’, both welcomed changes. The buttons have been redesigned with more contrast against the background. The chat now starts in a floating window instead of a new tab, which should help multitasking; also new IM conversations will open in tabs inside this small window, like in some desktop clients. Between all the positive changes a small inconsistency has slipped: the ‘flag’ button is now represented by a Gmail-like star, even though the action itself is still labeled ‘flag’. I would say the only down side of the new look is the larger header, which leaves less room for the email messages.
Playing around with the new beta, I also rediscovered some of the features of Yahoo! mail, things I usually consider exclusive to Gmail: you can select multiple adjacent messages by holding Shift on the keyboard; you can attach multiple files at once to a message; spell checking available in many languages; keyboard shortcuts, unfortunately only one set and different than Gmail’s – Hotmail support several configurations, including a ‘Gmail’ and a ‘Yahoo! mail’-mode. All of them were available in the previous version as well, but given my sparse use of Yahoo! I didn’t noticed them until now. Guess that’s one advantage of the new layout.
After this upgrade, Yahoo! Mail is accessible through three different web interfaces, like Gmail at some point, at least until they will scrap the current interface, as I think will happen. You can still switch between them easily enough: from the new beta click ‘Help’ ► ‘Return to Original Mail’ to return to the regular, uglier interface; from here you can go to the “classic” look from the ‘Options’ menu ► ‘Mail Classic…’. Anytime you want to return to the modern beta, there is a link on top of the inbox (‘Try the newest Yahoo! Mail’) that leads to the opt-in page.
Overall, it’s a good update for existing users, but hardly something that will make people switch away from other providers. It’s interesting how things evolved after the launch of Gmail, that forced the other competitors to change on a stagnant market. Hotmail and Yahoo! upgraded their storage space, but some of the other advanced features in Gmail like conversation threading and POP3 and IMAP support are still missing or poorly supported. The reason is probably simple: storage space is something with immediate value for all users, whereas the bulk of them don’t know what POP3 is and are confused if you present messages in any other way than chronological.
Personally, I don’t see any reason to reconsider the shift to Gmail. Yahoo! mail is a good example of service that survives through the ‘network effect’: because a lot of people use it, it’s not easy to switch to a competing service, even if it provides more features. It’s a popular IM client especially here in Romania, so I keep my account around mainly for this. Fortunately there are enough ways to access the IM protocol without the Yahoo! software – I use for example Trillian Astra. And the popularity is slowly being eroded by Facebook, probably one of the reasons this update was released.