New Yahoo Mail exits beta, rolls out improvements

Yahoo will close an almost two-year public test for its new version of Yahoo Mail on Monday with several new enhancements, as the Sunnyvale, California, Internet giant boosts this Webmail service that is key to both its usage and advertising growth.

Yahoo will remove the beta tag from the new Yahoo Mail version on Monday and will roll it out to all of the service's 254 million active users worldwide in the coming six weeks.

Because the new Yahoo Mail has been available to all the service's users for almost a year in beta form, its enhancements aren't a secret, but Yahoo is announcing some new improvements.

For example, all users will see an improvement in performance and speed with this "general availability" version of the new Yahoo Mail, as well as an expansion of the search refinement features.

In addition, the ability to initiate an instant messaging session with Yahoo Messenger users from within Yahoo Mail has been extended to include Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger users and will be available worldwide as well.

Meanwhile, users in the U.S., India, Canada and the Philippines will get the ability to send text messages to mobile phones from within an e-mail message window, a feature Yahoo expects to extend elsewhere as it secures agreements with local mobile operators.

Moreover, in the U.S., the new Yahoo Mail will also gain a feature called Shortcuts that has been available in the "classic" version of the service. This feature lets the system automatically recognize things such as dates and addresses, giving people the option of adding the information to their Yahoo Calendar or Contacts list, launching Web searches and displaying a map inside the Yahoo Mail interface.

Although the new Yahoo Mail will now become the service's primary version, users will be able to continue using the "classic" version. "We'll continue to offer both products for the foreseeable future and we'll let our users decide what's the right Yahoo Mail experience for them," said John Kremer, Yahoo Mail's vice president.

Yahoo, struggling over the past year with disappointing financial results and rocked by upper-management shakeups and broad organizational changes, has in Yahoo Mail one of its oldest and most popular offerings.

With the competitive pressure rising significantly in recent years among Webmail providers, due in large part to Google's introduction of Gmail in 2004, Yahoo's radical revamping of Yahoo Mail is aimed at protecting and extending its traditionally solid standing in this market.

Using the technology it acquired when it bought Oddpost in 2004, Yahoo launched the Yahoo Mail beta in September 2005 for a portion of the service's users, offering a radically redesigned user interface that works more like a typical desktop e-mail application.

For example, the new Yahoo Mail lets users drag and drop messages into folders, open multiple message windows, preview messages' content in a pane and perform actions via keyboard shortcuts.

With competition heating up from Google, Microsoft and others, Yahoo has to continually boost Yahoo Mail, which drives a lot of Web traffic for the company, an analyst said.

"Yahoo Mail is a keystone application for Yahoo, so continuing to enhance it is very important for the company, because there is a good chunk of ad inventory they get there," said Mike McGuire, a Gartner analyst.

However, the challenge is always to upgrade services in a way that provides tangible, concrete benefits to users, and to make people aware of the value of the improvements, McGuire said.

Because not everybody will embrace the new version right away, giving people the option of using the "classic" version of Yahoo Mail is a smart move. "That's important, because consumer inertia is a pretty powerful force," McGuire said.

Yahoo Mail is a free service, but it has a fee-based option called Plus that costs US$19.95 per year and offers additional features, such as POP access, e-mail forwarding and no graphical ads.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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