Yahoo has launched a test of the new version of its Web mail service with a radically redesigned user interface that works more like a typical desktop e-mail application, the Californian company announced on Wednesday.
The beta version of the new Yahoo Mail will be made available to an undisclosed number of users in the U.S. on Wednesday, and to increasingly more users in the coming months, a Yahoo official said.
The company isn't providing an estimate for when the new service will be generally available in final form to all users, but the idea isn't to have a prolonged beta period, said Ethan Diamond, director of product management for Yahoo Mail. "We want to make the beta as short as possible," he said.
Users for whom the beta is made available will be able to toggle between the new Yahoo Mail and the current version, and changes they make on either version will be automatically reflected on the other, Diamond said.
The new service is based on technology Yahoo acquired when it bought Oddpost in July 2004 and requires only that users access it with either Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, version 5.5 or higher, or with the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser, version 1.0 or higher, Diamond said. No additional software is required, he said.
The new Yahoo Mail offers user interface features that have been common for many years in e-mail desktop applications but rare in Web mail services. The features include the ability to drag-and-drop messages into folders, a pane to preview messages' content, the ability to have multiple message windows open and keyboard shortcuts to, for example, delete or create messages.
Other features include an advanced search functionality for searching through headers, attachment content and message bodies and the ability to scroll through all messages in a folder, instead of having a folder's messages split up among multiple pages the user needs to move through, Diamond said.
Yahoo will also progressively add other features now present in the current version of Yahoo Mail, such as advanced functionality for managing, organizing and transmitting photo files, he said.
As its predecessor, the new service will be free in its basic form, with a fee-based option that offers more storage and some additional features.
The improved Yahoo Mail reflects Yahoo's realization that Web mail services have evolved from simple personal mailboxes into information management applications that people are using to store and organize content such as digital songs, photos, video and content syndication feeds, said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst.
"In essence Yahoo realized that the format or application of its current mail product wasn't suitable as a real content management vehicle," he said. "It's a very dramatic step when you change [to this extent] the metaphor of your Web mail service."
Weiner sees a big potential for Yahoo to add significantly advanced features on top of this initial set it is debuting the beta version with. For example, it would make a lot of sense for Yahoo to add features for accessing and managing content syndication feeds into Yahoo Mail, he said. "I think a lot of what is important about it is not necessarily what we're seeing [today] but what's most likely to come," Weiner said.