SAN FRANCISCO--Phase one came last week, when Yahoo launched its new profiles site. Phase two begins next week, when Web developers can start sinking their teeth into Yahoo's attempt to replace its present static design with one that's customizable, application-rich, socially connected, and woven into other parts of the Internet.
Developers are essential to what the company calls the Yahoo Open Strategy. Yahoo is building the foundation, but it will be the arrival of others' applications that will show whether Yahoo's transformation attempt is fulfilling those hopes.
"That starts changing Yahoo from a walled garden to the best of the Web," said Ash Patel, executive vice president of Yahoo's Audience Product Division, speaking to reporters at Yahoo's Brickhouse site here Friday. Patel has a heavy burden: in his new role, he's responsible for a major part of Yahoo's attempt to reverse its fortunes amid a rough economy.
If the strategy works, more people will use Yahoo, and they'll use it more deeply. "We should see a lot more time spent and bigger engagement with the front page and mail and My Yahoo," Patel said. "The average Yahoo user who may use two or three things (today) will now start using four or five or six things."
Applications using the Yahoo foundation can run at Yahoo or outside it, and Yahoo will release a software developer kit to help programmers get started.
For example, when a commenter is posting on a publisher's Web site, the publisher could offer the commenter an option to have that activity broadcast on his stream of activity on Yahoo. That would let the commenter share what he's up to with his contacts while exposing the publisher's site to more potential readers.
Another example--indeed, the winner of the Yahoo Open Hack 2008 programming contest augmented Yahoo Mail to present all photos a person has sent or received into photo albums. More photos are shared daily on Yahoo than are uploaded to the company's Flickr photo-sharing site, Patel said, so moves like this could open new windows of activity on Yahoo properties.
New developer tools
Yahoo has opened some developer-oriented projects already, notably BOSS (Build Your Own Search Service) for repackaging Yahoo search results, and SearchMonkey for adding new depth and pizzazz to Yahoo's search results, but those were narrower in scope. At some point next week--Yahoo won't promise which day exactly--the more powerful tools will go live at the Yahoo Developer Network.
There are three broad categories of technology that developers will get access to next week. At the base is a social platform that applications can use to draw upon Yahoo users' social connections--as long as users have given permission. While sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace capitalized on the social-networking phenomenon, Yahoo argues that it already has the social data built into its properties. It's now a matter of bringing it to the fore so applications and users can draw on that information.
"The idea is to create a single social experience that can be shared," said Jay Rossiter, head of the Yahoo Open Strategy.
One oft-cited example is a revamped Yahoo Mail that spotlights mail from people's close contacts. If you spend a lot of time e-mailing your boyfriend, mom, or college roommate, chances are you'll want to know when they e-mail back.
One level above the social plumbing is the foundation for running applications, called the Yahoo Application Platform. Initially, Yahoo will house standalone applications, but as third parties' products mature, they'll also be able to run on Yahoo users' profile pages, My Yahoo pages, and other locations. Some will even run on the Yahoo.com home page, as long as they can meet tough requirements for high performance.
And the third level is the services level. Here, Yahoo provides the Yahoo Query Language, a close relative to the Structured Query Language many use to extract data from databases. YQL is designed to make it easier for programmers to extract and process data from Yahoo and many other Web sites, and Yahoo says it'll do the heavy lifting to make the data workable through YQL.
Of course, users might get the willies thinking about just how much their own activity is becoming part of the information flow of the Internet. Do you really want an application sharing what you do with your friends or indeed the entire world?
Yahoo doesn't want any privacy surprises, though. Each new application must declare to the user exactly what Yahoo services it wants to use and must obtain the users' permission to do so through a "scary" warning screen: the more services, the more exclamation mark alerts are shown--an interface designed to encourage developers to use the bare minimum and to ensure that users know what they're getting into, said Neal Sample, Yahoo's chief architect for platforms.
"Yahoo's going to put up essentially another skull and crossbones" for each service the application uses, Sample said.
And users will have fine control over what's shared or not. People will be able to broadcast what music they're listening to publicly while confining their movie habits only to close friends, for example.
Some socially connected services will require signed-in participation from both a Yahoo user and outsiders. For example, a person could selectively share photos without making them public, and those viewing the photos would have to sign in. Today, such a move requires that all people be Yahoo members, but the company will add a fast, lightweight registration process that can use any e-mail address.
Yahoo, of course, hopes receiving invitations from Yahoo members effectively will upsell those outsiders to Yahoo services. "It's valuable for Yahoo to have a way to draw more users into Yahoo," Rossiter said.