Yahoo is letting web programmers get their hands on the core code for its e-mail program.
Yahoo Inc. is set to allow outsiders to create new services using the world's most popular consumer e-mail program, in the broadest move the Web has yet seen to enlist independent programmers to build a company's products for it. The availability of Yahoo's e-mail application code represents an effort to leverage the company's popular online portal and e-mail service.
By doing so, the Sunnyvale, Calif. Company hopes to spur a host of applications built around Yahoo Mail. The service is accessed by more than a quarter of a billion Internet users worldwide, Yahoo says.
By opening up the code Yahoo hopes to help create a series of innovative ways to deal with e-mail messages. Eventually it said there could be "tens of thousands" of add-ons and extras for the e-mail reader.
Yahoo said the Web application code release -- aimed at spurring new interfaces and other features, and ties to third-party applications -- was among the biggest ever opened to developers, and would be generally available by the end of the year.
Yahoo is only the latest of the big web companies to open up their main services to the wider code developing community.
The announcement came as part of the company's "Yahoo Hack Day," a 24-hour long event where more than 500 young programmers were invited to the company's headquarters. There, the programmers were asked to build new applications based on Yahoo technologies.
"Hack Day" mixes Web programming competitions, overnight slumber party and a music festival where pop music superstar Beck has been hired to play a concert on the Yahoo campus.
Hack is used in its original sense of "creative programming" not illicit sense of breaking into computers.
“This one is really exciting,” said Yahoo developer Chad Dickerson in his blog.
What is being given away is the browser-based authentication scheme for Yahoo Mail, one of the crown jewels of its business, in a bid to encourage software developers to build new applications based on e-mail.
This would allow developers to build new user interfaces or methods to display a user's incoming mail. Yahoo says it cannot create all the applications users want; thus, opening up the code was a logical move.
Although Yahoo plans to keep control of the code that deals with user names and passwords, programmers will be able to tinker with almost every other part of the e-mail reading program. “Yahoo Mail has more than 257 million registered accounts.”
Mix and Mashup
The initiative could result in new looks for the Yahoo e-mail reader, innovative ways to display messages to get a quick idea of message contents or a series of add-ons that do more with the information found in mail messages.
Dickerson said he believed that the open approach to programming represented the biggest single Web software ever to be opened up for public development. "Yahoo is a very large company but we cannot build every application that a user might want," he said in an interview at Yahoo headquarters.
Interarbor Solutions Principal Analyst Dana Gardner told LinuxInsider that Yahoo's audience is clearly among the largest in the industry.
Yahoo's release of code also comes at a time when "mashups" -- the combination of two or more applications or interfaces -- are becoming more and more popular for the likes of eBay, Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo, which encouraged other e-mail providers to follow suit.
“We are seeing a burgeoning seduction to other ecology players and their developers,” Gardner said. “They are trying to take advantage of services from their portal.”
Software developers have traditionally kept careful control of the underlying programming code of their products and allowed outsiders to make only incremental improvements. In recent years, Web developers have opened up that process to encourage outsiders’ far deeper access to the underlying code.
Before now only Yahoo’s broadband partners, such as BT, have had access to the innards of the e-mail program.
More to Follow
In making this move, Yahoo is following the lead of many web firms including Google, Amazon, Flickr and business software maker Salesforce.com.
Yahoo, like Google and Microsoft, may be attempting to make its popular Web portal a platform for Web services that include not only its own applications, but also third-party software and services for sales, marketing and more, Gardner claimed.
“It is a trend Google has been aggressively on, and now we are seeing others step up to bat,” he noted. “In a way, it’s ‘me too,’ but if anybody can take a leadership role after saying me too, it is Yahoo.”
A Wave of New Ideas
While e-mail may be a good place for the Yahoos and Googles of the world to start, Gardner added, he would like to see more opening and integration of calendar applications, which would deliver a significant production benefit to business.
This will allow people to make custom versions of the basic interface, or look, of e-mail. Other uses may include tapping the information inside a user's e-mail program to create new ways of displaying the information to individual users.
Similar to the way instant messaging (IM) has been popularized by consumers and adopted by businesses, the likely objective of Yahoo and others in opening code is to appeal to small and medium (SMB) businesses and larger enterprises, Grey Consulting Principal Analyst Maurene Caplan Grey told LinuxInsider.
“Once you open up an API, it allows other vendors to enter, and it becomes a more attractive service for SMBs and eventually enterprises,” she said.
Rather than mashups, Grey continued, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are focused on monetizing their e-mail and other services to appeal to more lucrative markets.
The event drew Dan Lindquist, 23, an unemployed recent computer science graduate from Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts. As an example of what Yahoo is allowing programmers to do, Lindquist quickly conceived of the idea of building a more intensely visual way of reading e-mail.
"This is totally new," Lindquist said. "It is interesting to me not because I can build something to make people more efficient, but because I can offer something whimsical."
He hopes to allow e-mail users to use the photo stream of Yahoo's photo-sharing program Flickr to see visual clues of what is inside each e-mail. Mention of "cats" or "New York" would trigger relevant photos from Flickr. If successful, he will post his work on his Web site at http://danlindquist.net.
Yahoo Mail’s code will be generally available later in 2006 said Jason Rupp, product manager for Yahoo’s e-mail services.
Rupp said he hopes other e-mail providers will follow Yahoo's lead and open up the code of their own programs.
This could allow a "mash-up" to be created that permits users to simultaneously read Yahoo Mail, Google's Gmail and Microsoft's Hotmail from the same browser window rather than forcing users to sign into each e-mail system separately.
“There are just all kinds of things people could do,” he said.
"Once again, this is the never ending battle of these three vendors trying to move beyond the consumer space," Grey said, adding that the companies are aligning themselves to offer more advanced Web services and new business models, including software as a service.
Yahoo is not alone in its effort to open up who can program Web services using its tools. Major Internet companies including Amazon.com Inc., eBay Inc. and Google Inc. to established software providers such as IBM and Microsoft Corp. have embraced such moves.