Commentary

Wrestling With Yahoo

The YaGooSoft Industrial Complex wants onto the cell phone in the worst way. Aside from Microsoft's partnership to co-develop search services with Sprint, most of the carriers in the U.S. have shied away from legitimating the big Web search brands on their deck. The operators fear being ISP-ed (made into dumb pipes) by transcendent Web brands, so they tend to stick with white-label solutions for now. Meanwhile, Yahoo and Google especially ache to prove that they can do it better that anyone else. Both are developing interesting products and ideas at a fast clip. Google's Mobile app, for instance, can be tied to your personalized Google page, and there is a specific mobile configurator online that lets you drag, drop and preview only the elements you want to show up when you access via mobile.

As is its wont and tradition, Yahoo chooses the power portal approach of overwhelming you with data and options. I have been playing with their very ambitious Yahoo Go "Gamma" version on a BlackBerry for a few days now, and it is both maddening and impressive. This is as broad and deep of a mobile information app as I have seen on a phone, and (as is my wont and tradition) it raises a host of questions I can't answer yet.

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For now, the program only works with select handsets on the major carriers. RAZR owners can get it, but I had to resort to a BlackBerry from Sprint to test this out. Yahoo seems to get a little too cool for itself in trying to use a rotating "carousel" of "widgets" on the bottom or edge of the screen that calls up the various content buckets (mail, news, entertainment, weather, sports, Flickr, local/maps). My attitude is that a widget is a tool you elect to have on or off a desktop, and in this case I can't seem to pop these things off. I don't want Flickr and I don't need sports (I think we established this in my Super Bowl column). These aren't widgets; they are navigation menus.

I am not parsing semantics here, because Yahoo Go recalls my ongoing frustration with Yahoo as a developer and as a brand for a good eight or nine years now. The company has been too pushy and controlling. In many products, it cross-sells its own wares a little too intrusively, and it has had a habit of locking down some features that I think should be customizable. In the Yahoo Go Flickr section, for instance, the screen that pops up when you rotate into that widget (I mean menu) is the Interesting Photos feed, not images from my daughter's cotillion. For that you need to click into the section. In fact, each widget (oh, hell, I'll just play along) seems to have its own policy when it comes to personalization. I rotate into the news icon and I get generic headlines, but if I use the weather widget my local temp and forecast is at the surface. This feels a lot like the My Yahoo of 2001, which I abandoned quickly because it seemed to tease me with personalization.

There is tremendous flexibility to Yahoo Go, in that you can add RSS feeds to most sections to customize your news, scores and quotes, even if Yahoo makes that process more confusing than it has to be. Part of the problem is that there are several states to the program. In the widgets you can jump over to the immediate "panel" that is on the display or "Open" the widget into a very different window that is more customized. And then within these windows you can change settings that add new feeds, but it isn't always clear where those feeds show up. Yahoo's pitch page for the program online also promises that "settings" in my PC account will automatically show up on Yahoo Go -- but I am not seeing this.

The brightest spot in this mosh pit of portal notions is the oneSearch box, where Yahoo is working hard to deliver results that are clustered around the most likely categories of mobile content. This is one of the places where it feels as if the intelligence behind Yahoo Go accurately anticipates what I need in the mobile context. The query box is specific to the current vertical, so if I search "Knicks" in the sports area I get team-specific news, scores, Web images for wallpapers, and feeds I can pull into the area permanently. The local search also is superb, with a clean list of results that click into options for mapping, rating, direct dialing, etc. One of the things I always liked about Yahoo apps is the way they anticipate a user's next most likely moves in a given task. That is a very strong talent to have on a phone, even if it gets spread unevenly in Yahoo Go.

Yahoo has announced a more aggressive mobile ad push, but the only thing visible on Yahoo Go is a surprisingly weak launch sponsorship from Pepsi. The banner sits atop most pages of the carousel menu. But clicking into the banner jumps to a simple text page reminding you to check your bottle caps and visit a Web site. There isn't even a direct link. Huh? I am going to continue drilling and massaging Yahoo Go to work for me, because the potential here seems great, even though I feel as if I am wrestling with it. As I'll explore in the next column, the application is fascinating in its power and for the questions it raises about a host of things. How does one personalize effectively on mobile so that users are not overburdened? If you have an aggregator like Yahoo pumping news and information that it is getting from so many content sources, then is the portal competing with some of its own partners on this platform in a way it doesn't online? And where does the advertising best fit in a mobile portal?

In the meantime, if anyone out there has tips for pinning Yahoo Go to the mat a little more effectively, let me know. It feels a bit like wrestling with Andre the Giant.

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