Live: Yahoo Previews Its New Application Platform

I’m here at Yahoo Brickhouse in San Francisco for an event where Yahoo will preview its new Application Platform for developers, the latest effort in an ongoing strategy to be more “open” that was announced last April.

Executive Vice President Ash Patel will be joined by Jay Rossiter, Cody Simms, Neal Sample, and Sam Pullara to explain for the first time in depth just what the Application Platform is all about. I’ll be posting my notes here as I learn more.

The release of the application platform comes on the heals of a new profile system, which didn’t exactly launch without a hitch.

  • The platform isn’t being rolled out today; apparently it’s coming sometime next week.
  • 11:51am – Ash Patel is kicking things off by saying that we’ll be doing a “deep dive” into Yahoo’s open strategy. He is going back a bit in history explaining how there was once a “Jerry fund” that later evolved into Yahoo’s developer program, which works on APIs and other tools. When Jerry took over as CEO, he wanted to turn Yahoo into a platform company and have products that enforce that notion. Move away from collection of products to platform that has a developer ecosystem of developers, publishers, and advertisers.
  • 11:54am – A strength and weakness of Yahoo is that it has a lot of data. Developers have wanted to tap into it but it hasn’t been easy to do, especially with all the acquisitions. So Patel sketched up diagrams with Jerry that embodied a vision for platform that provided single consumer experience. Then the challenge was turning it into an “end state”, something that actually allowed products to come alive and change the Yahoo consumer’s experience.
  • 11:55am – Over period of 3-4 weeks teams worked on specing various elements out and come up compelling story that was called the “Sharon Deck” (named after the typical Yahoo user). They walked through the typical Yahoo user’s experience after all the changes were put in place. That’s when they decided it was something they really had to do, so they formed a team that became the YOS (Yahoo Open Strategy) team. It’s what they’ve spent the better part of a year on. Search Monkey and BOSS were early parts of the strategy, but biggest was the new profile from last week.
  • 11:57am – The profile system is like an iceberg – you’re only seeing 1/9 of what’s going on. Youll start seeing other products that leverage the profile system. Neil started on platform side but has now moved to product side so products actually take advantage of the platform. Open Mail, Galaxy experience, new frontpage all will take advantage of the platform and its openness. It’s all about rewiring the user experience so it engages users, changes Yahoo from a walled garden to the “best of the web”.
  • 11:59am – Today we’re going into the details of the platform, will be an interactive presentation so we can ask questions during it. Neil is now introducing us to the team (“brain trust”) behind YOS – Rossiter, Sample, Simms, and Pullara.
  • Jay Rossiter (Head of Yahoo Open Strategy) is now up onstage. He was pulled into the “big bet” late last year. At the start, he wasn’t sure how serious Yahoo was about all this, especially because it would take such a significant effort. So he was a bit skeptical but within a day, after talking with Jerry, Sue and Dave Filo, he was convinced it was serious and Yahoo was throwing its weight behind it. So he came onboard.
  • 12:02pm – Hundreds of people within Yahoo are working on the platform – it’s a large scale development. Has both executive-level buy-in and the developers behind it. And now we’ve delivered it. This doesn’t always happen because often companies have executive-level buy-in but no traction among engineers. At Yahoo, the problem has traditionally been the opposite – too many ideas among engineers but little executive guidance.
  • 12:04pm – Developer platform coming next week. We had an open hack day last month, second in history of company. Challenge was to give developers API and 24 hours to build an interesting application. Then we had an award ceremony. That was a developer preview, but next week we actually bring these APIs out.
  • 12:06pm – Goals of YOS: 1) establish a social dimension, 2) open properties to 3rd party developers like never before (so they can blend their ideas with Yahoo’s own), and 3) rewire yahoo itself with social features (this part’s going to be a “rolling thunder” with social products coming online over time)
  • 12:08pm – Rossiter is now going to talk about the technology stack behind YOS. The Yahoo Developer Network (YDN) is the “front door” for developers, with full documentation and details about Yahoo’s developer services. YOS has been built on top of Yahoo’s cloud intrastructure, which makes it possible to launch services on a large scale across many countries (the new profiles launched for 31 countries, for example). On top of this infrastructure sits a social platform that embodies one social graph and profile record. On top of that is an application platform that provides a framework for developing social apps. And on top of that is a web services and query language that provides one mechanism for accessing and mashing up data. The application platform enables apps on Yahoo itself whereas the web services and query language can be used to create apps off Yahoo with Yahoo data.
  • 12:14pm – Right now Yahoo users have multiple user accounts for different services. So first step is collapsing all of those identities into one and then map that single identity to a social graph where it’s connected with others (friends, etc). This part alone is quite a big task, but from a user’s point of view it’s very beneficial. We had to rework our internal login components so we had an identity record that was safe to share across applications, even ones managed by third parties.
  • 12:15pm – Then we wanted users to be able to map this single identity with other identities on the web (Amazon, Twitter, Digg, Facebook, Gmail, CNN, Windows, Google, eBay, etc). One of the things we’re going to do is allow people to use other accounts (like Gmail) and log into Yahoo with them.
  • 12:16pm – Once we’ve tied user accounts together from across the web, we can bring in information from these other services and make it usable on Yahoo. Conversely, we’ll make this aggregated information available for other services as well. It’s an in and out service, not just a data trap. We’re using oAuth to do this so users can break access for services when desired.
  • 12:19pm – You can give temporary access to your profile through a token so you don’t give up too much control. You can also set it up so that services either have permanent access to your profile data or only for a set number of days. Granular controls are also available that let you give access to particular parts of your profile but not others (this is an extension to the oAuth spec).
  • 12:20pm – Yahoo is concerned about making sure that these controls are intuitive, which is why it’s being careful about how it rolls them out among its userbase. They are considering language tweaks and tutorials as some of the ways to explain things better. Getting the user experience right is key, as is setting the right defaults for users. Users will also have the ability to give developers visibility of their data but not access (a nuanced point that controls the flow of data)
  • 12:23pm – Some of our competitors tend to train users to not care about these sort of issues. Yahoo will make sure that users know exactly how programs will access their information, and the prompt should look fairly scary (“skull and cross bones”) so users actually think about it (they appear to be contrasting their method with that of Facebook’s). This will encourage developers to do the right thing. This warning and permission granting system will hold true whether the user is installing something onto Yahoo or using an app off Yahoo that accesses Yahoo data.
  • 12:30pm – We’re working on the ability to do authenticated requests so banks and other security-minded institutions can tie their services into YOS with peace of mind. Yahoo recognizes that a lot of security considerations have to be made if such organizations are going to open up for data interflow.
  • 12:34pm – Patel: “the number of user accounts people have is ballooning out of control”. Yahoo wants to be the starting point for all of these accounts and to create an engaging experience for all of them.
  • 12:36pm – Yahoo’s attitude seems to be much like Facebook’s when it launched its app platform. The company realizes there’s a lot that can be done with its data but it doesn’t want to be the one that builds all the possible apps around the data, especially when it involves countless third party services (it’s like the anti-communism argument: the state can’t control everything and know exactly what people want, so leave it to the market).
  • 12:38pm – Rossiter is now turning his attention to the relationships people have, which is centered around the address book. The most important people in your address book are those who you actually have a relationship with. So you need a way to create a social graph out of this data. The key part of doing this is a technology called “Yahoo Activator”, which ties together Mail, Messenger, Gmail, Hotmail, Suggestion List, and your address book, using them all to determine who matter to you. The result is a ranked list of people as well as a list of suggested friends. Knowing that people contact each other in multiple ways (email, IM, etc) helps to determine who matters. Yahoo can then set user preferences that share certain information with people who matter to you (such as, share only photo uploads that have been deemed important to you). This is a new way to build a social graph. Previously, email spamming has been used heavily by others.
  • 12:43pm – Even though there are 273 million Yahoo mail users, lots of times you’re communicating with people who don’t use Yahoo mail. This system takes that fact into consideration and let’s outside users get involved with YOS. This activator technology is going to be put in front of several Yahoo properties, such as mail and IM. The hope is that the activator will get you set up in a very short amount of time.
  • 12:44pm – This activator technology will also help users handle the overload of emails they might get by filtering, labeling and categorizing messages that come from people who matter to you. You’ll also get a Xobni-like context for each email contact, showing you the history of your interactions with them. This is coming very soon. The activator is live in profiles as of last week, and it will go live in Mail as one of the first big pieces (not giving specific date but within next few months).
  • 12:52pm – Now discussing permissions and privacy concerns. Two parts to this: 1) who are my connections and 2) what data do I share with them. The choice and type of relationship is important. Data is shared with your “connections” not with your address book contacts or randoms. Also, the data that users explicitly put into Yahoo is their data; they own it. Yahoo places controls around spam (especially with regards to invites) and, as mentioned previously, leveraged oAuth. Yahoo wants to go with whatever is industry-compatible, isn’t necessarily wed to oAuth it seems.
  • 12:55pm – Cody Simms is now on stage to talk about data updates. Yahoo will let developers present their users with notifications that let them share their data back to Yahoo. For example, if their uploading photos off network, they can choose to send those photos to Flickr as well. The same goes for activity that occurs on sites like Flickr, Yahoo Music, message boards, Digg, or Facebook. Yahoo wants to provide a two-way updates platform that also pushes data updates back out to other services. So if someone does something on Digg, Yahoo can then inform a site like CNN of that action. It’s like Facebook Beacon but it doesn’t just drive data to Yahoo, it also syndicates data out to any number of sites. Also, it supports not just status-like messages but large data pushes (images, etc). All of the permission controls apply to these updates as well.
  • 1:04pm – Rossiter is back to tak about the Application Platform (finally?). It will provide 3 primary discovery mecanisms: invites, updates, and gallery. Applications can be installed by users in many places across Yahoo. Each app has 2 views – small and large. Furthermore, the view is customized depending on where it’s placed (in search, in mail, on the front page, etc).
  • 1:07pm – Number of different programming models. Open Social is one. It’s backed by something called eYML that allows apps to run in high performance and secure environments. It will eventually be made available to the open source community.
  • 1:09pm – After briefer-than-expected discussion on app platform, now talking about Yahoo Query Language (YQL), which “looks just like SQL”. Provides access to data from rest of the web. YQL is intended to do the heavy lifting for developers when community with a variety of APIs.
  • 1:15p – Last year has been all about building the platform, the next will be all about building products on top of it. This will involve getting Yahoo users to start making connections and building out their social graph. And it will involve placing “update consumption points” where users start acting socially. The profile piece from last week is an important one but not a destination. Instant Messenger 9 is a place where Yahoo is driving “activations” of the social graph; Mail and the homepage will be increasingly important in this regard over the next few months. Much of it is about giving users choice.
  • 1:18pm – Applications will come to My Yahoo, allowing users to customize it much more. Search has search monkey already. Mail will get applications that let you extend its capabilities, as will the frontpage.
  • 1:19pm – Hooks will be placed at all the consumption and production places around Yahoo (music, news, sports, movies, etc) that encourage users to engage in social behavior
  • Next week: Yahoo Application Platform, all social APIs, updates platform, YQL
  • Next week developers will have a sandbox area where they can start developing their apps and share them with their connections. There won’t be any gallery yet, and they won’t actually be able to push these out onto any Yahoo sites — both of those steps come later, after Yahoo has let the platform “bake” a bit..
  • Both instant messenger and profiles now have Facebook feed-like areas where you can see updates. Later on, these will be added to different places as well (homepage, etc).
  • 1:37pm – Presentation is now done. We’ll upload slides from the event once we get them.