San Francisco -- Yahoo last week released phase one dubbed “universal profile,” and now it plans to release phase two of its new application platform this week, when Web developers can begin sinking their teeth into Yahoo’s attempt to replace its present static design with one that is customizable, application-rich, socially connected, and woven into other parts of the Internet.
In the coming months, the open software platform is expected to reach Yahoo’s home page and Yahoo Mail, part of an effort to attract more visitors by adding Facebook-like social networking features to Yahoo’s Web sites.
On Friday at Yahoo’s San Francisco satellite office, known as the Brickhouse, a group of Yahoo executives and product managers presented a preview of Y!OS, Yahoo’s Open Strategy. It is “a centralized control panel that enables you to administer your identity, activities, interests, and connections across Yahoo -- and eventually the entire Web,” as Jim Stoneham, Yahoo’s VP of communities, put it in a blog post.
The platform is a major component of Yahoo’s “open strategy,” which executives tout as part of their plan to turn around its declining economic fortunes. Yahoo hopes to attract more traffic to its sites by allowing people to share information about their interests and activities with friends.
Similar to Facebook, they will be able to create a network of connections and send alerts to those people when they upload photos to Flickr or comment on a story at Yahoo News, for example. The idea is to make Yahoo more useful by giving third-party applications a way to plug into and link Yahoo services and user data.
Developers are important to what the company refers the Yahoo Open Strategy. Yahoo is developing the base, but it will be the arrival of third-party applications that will show whether Yahoo’s transformation attempt is fulfilling those hopes.
“That transforms Yahoo from a walled garden to the best of the Web,” said Ash Patel, executive vice president of Yahoo’s Audience Product Division, speaking to reporters at Yahoo’s Brickhouse site here Friday. Patel has a heavy burden: in his new role, he will be responsible for a major part of Yahoo’s attempt to reverse its fortunes amid a rough economy.
Yahoo hopes to reveal the Yahoo Application Platform, a framework for developing Web applications for Yahoo and elsewhere; the Yahoo Social Platform, a set of application programming interfaces for utilizing social graph data and user activity streams; and Yahoo Query Language, for querying and manipulating data from Yahoo and other sources.
If the plan works, greater number of people will make use of Yahoo, and they will use it more profoundly. “We should see a lot more time spent and bigger engagement with the front page and mail and My Yahoo,” Patel said. “A normal Yahoo user who uses two or three things (today) will now begin using four or five or six things.”
The platform will also reach-out to non-Yahoo sites such as Amazon and Digg, so that users will be able to see from within Yahoo’s Web sites what their friends have been doing elsewhere on the Web. And third-party sites will be able to publish user activity back into the Yahoo network, which could help those sites draw more visitors.
It is an aspiring project that needs Yahoo to “rewire” its properties to create a single underlying platform that connects them all. Those services existed in the past as “silos” that allowed for little interaction between them, said Patel.
“The platform is how we start rewiring and reforming the user experience,” he said.
And in the coming months, the effects of Y!OS will reach-out to Yahoo’s home page and Yahoo Mail, enabling functions and applications that utilize social profile data.
Yahoo has released some developer-related projects already, notably BOSS (Build Your Own Search Service) for repackaging Yahoo search results, and SearchMonkey for adding new depth and pizzazz to Yahoo’s search results, but those were narrower in scope. But at some point this week -- Yahoo did not declared which day exactly -- the more powerful tools will go live at the Yahoo Developer Network.
Jay Rossiter, head of Yahoo’s Open Strategy, explained it as a way to “bring a social dimension to what Yahoo does and open up Yahoo properties and the data they have, to allow developers to bring applications out to users, for a more engaging experience.”
“Like an iceberg, you are seeing 1/9th of the tip there,” said Rossiter.
Yahoo says it has more than 500 million users worldwide.
While sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace took advantage of the social-networking phenomenon, Yahoo argues that it already has the social data built into its properties. It is now a matter of bringing it to the fore so applications and users can draw on that information.
“The aim is to build a single social experience that can be shared,” said Rossiter.
One oft-referred example is a revamped Yahoo Mail that spotlights mail from people’s close contacts. If you spend a lot of time e-mailing your boyfriend, mom, or college roommate, chances are you will want to know when they e-mail back.
Neal Sample, chief architect of platforms at Yahoo, explained that when people let Yahoo or third-party applications make use of their data, they will be presented with a detailed summary of how their data will be used. By making data use explicit and requiring user agreement, Sample expects that developers will be discouraged from asking for more data than they need.
Part of the challenge will be convincing Yahoo’s users to buy into the idea. At some time in the future, when they log into a Yahoo service they will see the Yahoo Activator, which will present a list of all their contacts pulled from Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger and other services. They will use this to build their connections list and decide who can see what information.
Each new application will have to warn users about the data it intends to access, such as their address book, inbox or profile, and about who the information will be shared with. Patel admitted that this is a delicate area. Yahoo will make certain selections by default that users can then alter.
“Choosing the right defaults so people do not inadvertently give away their privacy is part of the challenge,” Patel said.
Yahoo clearly aims to avoid the privacy issues that surfaced after Facebook introduced Beacon, a social ad targeting system in late 2007. Key to Yahoo’s vision is OAuth, an open protocol for publishing and utilizing protected data.
Yahoo spent the past year developing the platform. Much now depends on the creativity of developers to make it a success, Patel said.
Yahoo -- which has been struggling to sustain its growth rate, hopes the social networking features will encourage people to use more of its services