Yahoo has announced that it's beginning to roll out what looks like a useful update to the beta version of its Yahoo Mail Webmail client--one with integrated instant messaging via the company's Yahoo Messenger. (I first blogged about this when it demoed the update back at the Web 2.0 conference in November.)
Based on a new demo I got today, the integration looks pretty straightforward. When you're in the Yahoo Mail beta, you can see which of your contacts are available for chatting--which they will be if they're either logged into Yahoo Messenger or in the Yahoo Mail Beta. If someone's there, you can chat with them, which you do in a new tab in the Yahoo Mail interface. Avatars (if you've got 'em) show up in the chat; if you begin to send an e-mail to someone who's online, it's easy to segue into an IM session, and if the person you're talking to goes offline, Yahoo Mail's smart enough to notice, and lets you continue the conversation in e-mail rather than IM form.
This is not exactly a new idea--Google did something similar with Gmail and Google Talk awhile back--but Yahoo's implementation looks slick. As with everything about the Yahoo Mail beta, the chat implementation feels like a desktop application that's somehow leaped into your browser. (I don't, however, see an equivalent to Gmail's ability to save logs of your chats.)
Two other notes:
1) The downloadable Yahoo Messenger client lets you talk to folks who use Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger client...but the Yahoo Mail beta doesn't. (Like any instant-messaging client, of course, this one would be infinitely more useful if you didn't have to worry about which network your pals are on--which you don't with the wonderful Web-based Meebo service.)
2) The Yahoo Mail beta has been the Yahoo Mail beta for a really long time--we first wrote about it in September 2005. It remains in beta, and the IM features are sort of beta-on-top-of-beta: People who use the Yahoo Mail beta will gradually be offered the new IM features over the coming weeks. Yahoo says it plans to make the Yahoo Mail beta the standard interface sometime "in the coming months." Which is kinda vague, but also kinda moot, since it's an open beta that any Yahoo Mail user can get for the asking..
Yahoo has posted a screencast demo of Yahoo Mail's new IM features here.