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Yahoo Retools Its Messenger App For Today–And Tomorrow

It’s one of the net’s most venerable ways to chat with friends. And it doesn’t want to get left behind as messaging evolves.

Just how old is Yahoo Messenger? Well, when the service debuted in 1998, it was initially known as Yahoo Pager–and at the time, there was nothing silly or retro about it having a word like “Pager” in its name.

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A lot has happened since then. The services it originally competed with–AIM, ICQ, and the like–long ago fell off most people’s radar screens. And a new generation of mobile apps, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and China’s WeChat, basically reinvented what Yahoo Messenger and others had pioneered.

Now Yahoo is releasing a version of Messenger that’s not just new, but a radical rewrite. It’s available for iOS, Android, as a web app, and as a feature within Yahoo Mail. And it not only attempts to fast-forward the service right into the modern era of mobile messaging, but also get it ready for the next stage of evolution.

GIF search

The redone Messenger has some new features–which, naturally enough, you’ll be most interested in if you’re a Yahoo user who already uses the app to talk to other Yahoo users. You can insert animated GIFs from Tumblr, tap a heart to register your approval for any message, and have unlimited ability to delete any message or photo you’ve ever shared. Overall, though, it’s less about cramming in additional functionality and more about creating a platform that’s fast, reliable, and powerful. (It incorporates technology from Cooliris, a startup with a long history of making impressively zippy apps and web services, which Yahoo bought a year ago.)

Rather than sending out a message or image and waiting for a response from the other end, the new Messenger is built to store data locally and sync it across the Internet in the background. This has several benefits: For instance, if you share a photo, your recipient will see a low-resolution version immediately, while a full-res one gets synced over. And if you’re somewhere with spotty connectivity–or with no Internet at all, such as on a plane–you can still use all of Messenger’s features, knowing that anything you send will go out once you’re back online.

The store-locally-and-sync approach also lets you swipe your way back through a thread of messages and images as fast as your thumb can take you, without the app getting bogged down as it fetches old content across the net.

More To Come

Yahoo senior vice president Jeff Bonforte–who happens to be in charge of rolling out the all-new Messenger during the latest flurry of speculation about Yahoo being sold off or chopped up–cheerfully acknowledges that this all-new Messenger is arriving none too soon. “The previous Messenger lasted for 15 years, 10 of which were very good,” he told me. As his team worked on the update, it found improving it so addictive that it could have kept on postponing its release indefinitely. “The disappointment for me,” he says, “would be Marissa [Mayer] saying, ‘Why didn’t Jeff have this platform ready sooner?'”

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The idea is to help other parts of the company leverage this modern messaging platform where appropriate–something that should start happening in 2016, Bonforte says. For instance, Yahoo Fantasy Sports has a basic chat feature built in. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be replaced with a more robust version based on the new Messenger platform in a future release.

The company also wanted to get Messenger ready for an age in which messaging apps are increasingly being used for new purposes such as allowing companies to provide customer service–something that WeChat has pursued aggressively and that Facebook is beginning to dabble with in its Messenger app. Yahoo Messenger could be a sort of Switzerland of messaging, Bonforte says: “We don’t own an OS, we don’t have a phone, and we have lots of deep relationships with consumers and businesses.” Data shows that smartphone users are willing to install and use four messaging apps, he added; the new Yahoo Messenger, he thinks, has a shot at being one of them.

Now that Yahoo has finally retired the old Messenger code–some of which dated to the 1990s–it hopes to compete on an equal footing with the current crop of messaging apps, no matter where the category goes. “I’m over the moon about this product,” Bonforte says, “but it opens up a whole world of innovation for us in the next generation.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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