Fulfilling a second major part of its promise to make the internal workings of its Web site more extroverted, Yahoo is opening the interface for its address book for outside use.
The move could mean that Yahoo, struggling under business pressures but still a stronghold of Web activity, could become more tightly tied to others' Web services. For example, a programmer starting up a social networking site could use the interface to send invitations to a member's list of contacts stored at Yahoo.
"Our address book has for a long time been one of the top things developers wanted access to," said Chris Yeh, head of the Yahoo Developer Network. That's because, over the years, Yahoo users have filled it with billions of individual records.
Yahoo users have stored more than 500 million address books, and the service is used by more than 150 million unique users each month, Yeh said. "A lot of our address books (are) constantly being updated. It's one of the biggest sources of contact information on the Web," he said.
Opening the address book API (application programming interface) is the second major step taken so far in executing the Yahoo Open Strategy that Chief Technology Officer Ari Balogh announced in April. The first step, in May, was opening the SearchMonkey project so outside coders could make more creative use of Yahoo search results.
"The address book is the second proof point. This year, we'll show proof point after proof point," Yeh said.
Yahoo Open Strategy is an attempt to link the company more with other Internet activities rather than remain a sealed-off, if sprawling, Internet domain. Through its open strategy, the company envisions outside programmers building Web applications on Yahoo's site, Yahoo services being incorporated into outside applications, and social connection information within Yahoo being used more widely.
Whether Yahoo will succeed in capturing developer attention and becoming a more dynamic part of new developments remains to be seen. A lot of action--some complementary but much of it competitive--also is taking place at rivals such as Facebook, Google, and any number of small Web 2.0 start-ups.
From the outside looking in
The address book move means outside Web sites will be able to read and write address book information--if a user grants permission through a Yahoo authorization process.
A site with a gift registry could piggyback on the address book so that a person could tell contacts about a wish list of presents, for example, Yeh said. Or a site shipping packages to others could auto-complete the address fields on a Web form.
(And something I'd like to see happen: somebody please endow the address book with an interface that doesn't look like it dates from 1998. I have a lot of contacts stored away in the Yahoo address book, and I find it excruciating to update addresses, scrub out obsolete e-mail addresses, or update mailing lists.)
Explicitly opening the service is more secure than one alternative today, in which a third-party site asks a user for Yahoo log-in credentials so it can access the site and scrape the contact information.
"There's no control over what happens after a user gives that (username and password). The third party could use it to log in to mail or any other part of Yahoo," Yeh said. "It's not a real secure method."
Yahoo isn't opening up the interface for an address book creation, though, which means it won't at least for now be usable as a generic back end for a Web site's address book needs.
Social graph theft?
One interesting possibility raised by the openness is whether an outside company might use it to steal, in effect, a user's social graph--the collection of connections each user often must laboriously reproduce as he or she joins a new site. Social graphs are a key asset of Web sites with a social element, in part because it's hard to reproduce them elsewhere. So once a user constructs one, there's a strong incentive to remain loyal to a site.
Yahoo isn't concerned about that, in part because opening the interface will mean other sites will be able not only to extract contact information from Yahoo, but also to synchronize changes on their sites back with Yahoo, Yeh said.
"I don't think we're worried about losing control over our social graph. All the things we're doing now are trying to break down some of the traditional walls Yahoo has had to the outside world," he said. "Yes, absolutely some of our data will get pulled out and be used for benefit of other systems. (But) when people use our system address book APIs, there's just as much a chance somebody will load something back into our network."
One company making use of the Yahoo address book interface is Plaxo, which hosts 40 million users' address books already.
Yahoo itself maintains multiple social graphs--for example, the address book, the Yahoo Messenger buddy lists, and the Flickr lists of contacts, friends, and family.
"Not all this data is combined yet," Yeh said, though one key part of Yahoo Open Strategy is to unify these contact lists and the related user profile pages. "The goal of the next half year is to make sure we bring that together."
The Yahoo address book is the "place we like people to store all their contact information," he said, but it's not a terribly rich social graph. For example, it doesn't currently have a good way to distinguish which contacts would be appropriate to invite to a new social service or to receive gift registry notifications.
"One of the things that we have to do is give users and opportunity to activate their social graph a little bit--essentially, to make sure they can classify the people they're most interested in communicating with on a regular basis so we know how to create a social environment around them," Yeh said.
"Going forward, we'll have to have a better solution for people so we can classify inside our address book who we're closest to and who are at further distance from us," he added. "That's a function of the social work we're doing."