During Marissa Mayer’s time as CEO of Yahoo, mobile apps have been one of the company’s top priorities. The ones that have gotten the most attention, such as Yahoo Weather and Yahoo News Digest, have been nicely done. But by catering to fairly specific niches, they’ve had limited impact. If Yahoo wanted to impress people at a larger scale, it would need to build something ambitious with the potential to reach truly vast numbers of people.
And now it has. That ambitious something is a updated version of the Yahoo Mail app for iOS and Android. It’s a really thorough, deep makeover. And with 225 million people accessing Yahoo Mail a month, it has a big ready-made user base to address.
I got some hands-on time with the new version and found a mix of tweaks: speed enhancements, the arrival of functionality that already existed in the Yahoo Mail version for desktop browsers, ideas borrowed from other apps, features inherited from Xobni (the email startup that Yahoo acquired in 2013), and more.
Yahoo Mail now has a slicker photo picker and inserts images directly into emails rather than as attachments. You can swipe messages to the left or right to triage them, in a feature reminiscent of Dropbox’s Mailbox app. Search is snappier and smarter about picking up what you’re looking for even if you just type a contact’s initials, and lets you view all the photos or documents someone has sent you in one view. The app’s Xobni heritage is visible in the way it aggregates details about your email correspondents, with items such as a list of other people who they email frequently, their recent tweets, and a history of their messages to you.
Smart Views, which already existed in Yahoo Mail’s desktop incarnation, automatically group messages of particular types, such as social updates and travel-related mail. A feature called Yahoo Account Key lets you sign in using a notification rather than typing in a password. And an inbox-aggregating option lets you manage multiple Yahoo accounts as well as Outlook.com and AOL Mail accounts (but not, alas, Gmail).
The iOS and Yahoo incarnations of the app are mostly the same, but Yahoo made an intriguing usability decision: It figured that smartphone users are familiar with the default email apps on their respective platforms, and might want some consistency from third-party apps such as Yahoo Mail. So each app organizes threads of conversations similarly to its platform’s default email tool.
The app is unexpectedly rich in Easter eggs. Hold down the button for composing a new message, for instance, and you’ll automatically address one to yourself–a little shortcut that Yahoo built in to acknowledge the fact that a lot of folks use email to remind themselves of important stuff.
Aesthetically, the new Yahoo Mail apps aren’t a radical departure from the previous versions. There are some nips and tucks and–this is important because we’re talking about Yahoo–an interface done in a different shade of purple. But the app has one clever touch that makes a surprising difference: If it can’t find a photo of a contact to use as an avatar, it doesn’t just stick in that person’s initials in an anodyne font. Instead, it creates a custom avatar by scouring Flickr for a photo with the appropriate letters, ensuring that even generic avatars aren’t too generic.
Responsibility for Yahoo Mail falls into a part of the company run by senior vice president Jeff Bonforte, who joined the company in 2013–although this is his second tour of duty there–after it acquired Xobni, where he was CEO. An April 2015 reorganization gave him responsibility for Flickr as well as email and other communication products, resulting, he told me, in him being in charge of 94% of Yahoo offerings relating to storage. (Of course, he cheerfully admitted he made that exact figure up, but you get the idea.)
Bonforte is always fun to chat with, and he’s been wrangling storage for a long time–I first met him in the last century, when he was the CEO of I-Drive, a service that was pretty much Dropbox, before the world was quite ready for Dropbox. This time around, I met the skydiving enthusiast in a Yahoo conference room named after the Ben & Jerry flavor Chunky Monkey, where he blasted through a demo of recent additions to Yahoo Mail’s desktop version at impressive speed, Red Bull in hand.
Being in charge of Yahoo Mail involves challenges inherent in tending to one of the web’s most venerable services. Bonforte told me that the Yahoo Mail he found when he arrived back at the company was based on aging–though resilient–technology. And its 225 million users include a lot of longtimers who don’t necessarily want to be startled by significant changes to the service, which helps explain why the new version’s revisions, though substantial, are mostly subtle rather than in-your-face.
Compared to Silicon Valley’s most intrepid Internet giants, Yahoo has not always devoted its full attention to the quality of the apps and services it’s built. During Bonforte’s previous time at Yahoo, during the eras when it was run by Hollywood vet Terry Semel and then its cofounder, Jerry Yang, “product was three layers down below the CEO,” he says. When he got back, Mayer had been CEO for a year, and the first thing he asked her, he remembers, was “How many lawyers are on staff?”
When Mayer joined Yahoo from Google, she brought a more attentive, ambitious approach to product development with her. But Bonforte says that she stresses discipline over, in the words of a famous Facebook slogan, moving fast and breaking stuff. “Today, it’s not easy to ship product,” he says. “Marissa runs the ship with a tight grip. As a product manager, it’s not that I love every gauntlet, but they’re logical gauntlets.”
With this new version, Yahoo Mail’s mobile app is changing a whole lot all at once, after a long period of relative stasis. Bonforte says that the release ushers in a new era of more frequent updates. “There’s a whole lot more to come,” he promises. “It took us a few months to build this app pretty much from the ground up.”
As impressive as the update looks, we all have webmail accounts already. I asked Bonforte whether he thought it was good enough to tempt users of other systems such as Gmail to switch. He told me that he hoped that would prove to be true. But he also said that it would accomplish its goal even if all it did was help current users get more out of email. “When you’re a large system,” he explained, “engagement is growth.”