Thu 26 Jan
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the luxury of unfettered access to my mail server for Subtraction.com from wherever I’ve happened to work. This has allowed me to maintain a clean separation between personal and business correspondences, as I’ve always been able to receive POP3 message traffic right into a separate mail database at my office (usually in a different email client from the employer’s official, sanctioned email client), without having to rely on my workplace email address to keep in touch with people.
That’s no longer the case. For security reasons, POP3 traffic is restricted to me during the workday now, so now I have to rely on Web-based email clients, a genre of net software for which I’ve never managed to drum up very much enthusiasm. Managing my email box over the Web is a bit like providing technical support to my mother over the phone; it’s halting and inelegant at best, and frustrating and time-consuming at worst. No matter how many gigabytes of free storage and no matter how much Ajax-goodness is conscripted into the service of the user interface, Web-based mail clients can’t hold a candle to the experience of a desktop email client — even one as convoluted and inscrutable as Microsoft Outlook. And that’s saying a lot.
However, the beta release of Yahoo Mail comes close. To amend my unfortunate workday exile from POP3, I started to use this stunning online email client last week, thanks to a scarce beta invitation rounded up for me by my friend Richard. Having been in a private beta testing phase since last fall, it’s by now the consensus that this version of Yahoo Mail will be, once it’s released, the best Web client available — I happen to agree.
You’ve probably heard that the new Yahoo Mail goes to extraordinary lengths to approximate the interaction behaviors of a desktop email client. It’s something altogether more amazing, though, when you see it and use it for yourself: messages can be dragged and dropped into folders, email addresses are auto-completed as you compose new messages, and right-clicking produces true and useful contextual menus. It’s a uniformly well-executed experience that’s far and away superior to the whiz-bang eyesore of its most obvious rival, Google’s Gmail. This is due in no small part to the fact that the new Yahoo Mail is hugely more beautiful than all of its competition; its aesthetic is first-rate and realized with aplomb. Fit and finish counts.
Of course, this latest version of Yahoo’s mail offering is an assimilated version of Oddpost, arguably the first Web 2.0 application to rise out of the ashes of the dot-com boom, and acquired by the company almost two years ago. What beta users are experiencing is an updated version of Oddpost, but at its core it’s essentially the same as it was before Yahoo broke out its checkbook. So it’s amazing how advanced the user experience remains compared to the raft of online applications that we saw released last year. The only thing it’s truly missing is speed; its performance is acceptable, but it’s still mired by the clunky protocols of remote scripting and American broadband, circa 2006.
If it were just an amazing simulacrum of a desktop email client, though, Yahoo Mail still wouldn’t be the solution for my restricted POP3 access. Thankfully, the company’s exceedingly sharp understanding of what it takes to make a successful online email product wasn’t resigned exclusively to its purchase of Oddpost. Yahoo Mail has always allowed users to retrieve external POP3 email through its interface, but after upgrading to a premium account for US$20 per year, it also allows users to send email from external accounts, too. After a simple authentication process, I can now send messages through Yahoo Mail that, for all intents and purposes, are identical to messages I would otherwise send from my desktop. This allows me to check multiple Subtraction.com accounts simultaneously — a feature that is worth the price of admission alone, in my book — while avoiding the paltry webmail feature-set provided by my host.
In the race between Yahoo, Google and Microsoft, I’ve always considered Yahoo to be the likeliest not to come out on top. The company has never had the massive tent-poles of Microsoft’s operating system and boxed software businesses, nor the tremendous and singular mind-share that Google has as the de facto synonym for search. Yet given examples like this Yahoo Mail beta release, I’m beginning to change my mind. It’s obvious that, even in its other products, Yahoo has spent the past several years thinking through its online applications in a way that none of its competitors have; taken as a whole, its suite of online productivity applications are more thoroughly integrated than any of its competitors — they’re far from perfect, but still as close to seamless as anyone can claim at this point in history.
For me, the main sticking point has been that these offerings have never been particularly beautiful, as for years Yahoo had been single-mindedly faithful to its HTML 1.0 aesthetic. But in little ways here and there, that’s been steadily improving, and with this new version of Yahoo Mail, their design sensibility has taken a nontrivial leap forward. Yahoo now has something that Google apparently has no use for and Microsoft handles like a slippery fish: design and aesthetics. I’d like to see the Yahoo Mail beta’s look and feel find its way across all of Yahoo’s offerings — they could certainly use them. And then, wouldn’t it be great if design turns out to be one of the reasons that Yahoo wins?.