Commentary

Wahoo For Yahoo's Honest Effort

After years of irritating me, Yahoo finally is getting on my good side. For much of my digital life – now going on 18 years – I begrudgingly recognized this behemoth entity for its unmistakable scale and even innovation in areas like behavioral targeting and personalization. I just never liked its products much. The portal and MyYahoo spaces were always hopelessly cluttered. The company's relentless cross-promotion always seemed to get in the way of some good ideas. And its search experience was always lacking for me. Worse, the company never seemed able to decide what it was – portal, directory, new media company, aggregator or an email service with side benefits.

But its latest wave of mobile efforts are finally showing both a coherence of vision and some hard thinking about what makes mobile work. A lot of people were enamored with the lovely weather app and the highly customizable sports app. I am intrigued by the new News Digest app because it shows some hard thinking about the ways in which we might (might, mind you) want our news pushed to us on devices. The app takes its cues from old media – the newspaper and TV news format. You get nine stories twice a day, with a morning and evening edition. AOL, that other often-lost portal/aggregator/media company, tried something a bit like this in its iPad Edition app a few years ago. This execution lacks the personalization of AOL's but is more compelling in is format.  

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What I like about the digest approach is the smooth way each story aggregates and synopsizes multiple sources – courtesy of the Summly technology Yahoo bought a while back. But better than that the stories also pull in maps, images, video and links to the major media covering the story in greater depth. You can skim or dive into a story. As it does very well at its mobile Web site as well, Yahoo is rethinking what the portal does. In this case it not only pulls in and assembles multiple sources, it helps make sense of them and standardizes the formatting from among many contributing styles. Part of its inspiration clearly comes from Flipboard, but it is superior in the richness of multimedia selection for each story and the more focused experience.

I am not sure in the end that this is how I want the news. The nine-story frame feels too constricted to me. I wish Yahoo would bolt onto this app some hooks into the rest of its content pool. I understand and appreciate the old-school emphasis on heavy-handed editorial curation. But I think that train has left the station. As much as curation likes to advertise itself as the cure for digital overabundance and clutter, the fact is that we all are accustomed to having the free-range option when it comes to information. Fences feel unnatural.

Nevertheless, what I see in Yahoo's recent apps is a company that is starting to go beyond the tired “mobile first” cliché. They are thinking through and testing mobile media consumption options and doing so in ways that are distinct from obvious rivals like Google and even the mobile startups like Flipboard.

The good news for Yahoo is that for all of its missteps and meandering over the years, it somehow still has retained massive scale. Until now it used that throw weight mainly to move people around a series of mediocre products. Finally, they are working on some ideas worth pushing all of those eyeballs to.    

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