Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/02/22/yahoo_go_review/

Yahoo! Go? Yahoo! No!

If this is the future of mobile data - mobile data doesn't have a future

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Mobile, 22nd February 2006 18:07 GMT

Review About a year ago, a man I'd never met before showed me pictures of a dramatic episode in his life. These showed him driving his wife to the hospital, where she was about to give birth. There were dozens and dozens of these pictures, and in each one his wife was looking progressively more grumpy.

As you'd be, too, if your waters had broken, and your husband had only one hand on the steering wheel.

He was as proud of this act of obsessive recording as I, a total stranger, was embarrassed.

The man then enthused at length about "emerging technology". Shortly afterwards, I was not surprised to hear that he'd decided to start a new life in California.

The fellow was Christian Lindholm, and the irony of this review is that while he was at Nokia, Christian helped make a hostile technology usable for ordinary people. Mobile phones are indisputably the one technology success story over the last decade, and Lindholm's team developed the Navi-key user interface, which I believe has never been surpassed in terms of grace and simplicity.

Now's he's at Yahoo!, Christian is helping make technology hostile again - something he'd already begun to do with at Nokia, with his work on the Series 60 user interface for Symbian smartphones.

I've been testing Yahoo!'s Go! software for mobile phones for six weeks now, and it's the most presumptuous and irritating piece of software I've ever used. I value some of Yahoo!'s services, and I'm more forgiving of my phone's idiosyncrasies than most people. But Yahoo! Go is a poster child for what happens when scientists or technologists lose sight of the needs of ordinary people. Judged purely on some narrow technical parameters, it's amazing. Judged by how well it fits into a corporate Yahoo! marketing strategy, it fills all the tick boxes. Someone's even created a Yahoo! theme and bundled it in the package.

The problem is much deeper than that, and as a result, everything that made Navi-key a success has been forgotten, or thrown away, in Y!Go.

I don't mean to pick on Christian personally, he's a super fellow. The Y!Go project was underway before he joined Yahoo! as its VP of Global Mobile Products in September. It's much more about what misinforms corporate technology decisions.

There's something about people who, once they get smitten by the idea of a "Hive Mind", often lose their own (usually it's temporary, but sometimes it's not). When the basic philosophical assumptions are misguided, then the plumbing is wrong, and that takes a lot of fixing.

It's this, we'll discover, that's at the core of the problem.

What's wrong with Yahoo! Go?

Christian himself points out in his blog announcing that Y!Go fulfills several criteria: it's a suite that requires just one sign-in; it integrates deeply into the phone, and it provides high-fidelity synchronization.

And it does exactly what as he says.

Yahoo! Go's very own folderWhat it doesn't do, is fulfill the marketing slogan [warning: empowerment rhetoric ahead], which is "With Yahoo! Go, You're In Control". Not only was data now flying at me when I didn't want it - alerts were coming up which I hadn't requested, and, as the software began to do its stuff, I was even losing control of the phone.

I use a Yahoo! email account and immediately regretted installing Y!Go. Yahoo! has a useful SMS alert service to tell me when an email from one of a few people - who send me great emails - has arrived. Y!Go also rings out the SMS alert when it delivers your email, in full, to the phone. But the Y!Go software doesn't seem to know about the SMS alert service, and doesn't check it. So before long, my phone was bleeping like a demented robot, with these duplicates.

Purely on a technical level it's impressive. Y!Go delivers your email into the main Symbian messaging inbox, and under a separate folder, you can select which of your Yahoo! subfolders you want synchronized too.

But without more selective filtering, this is only going to appeal to the kind of people who can't live without email for a minute: CrackBerry addicts, for example.

These people need a life - not more software.

While a control panel (pictured) lets you choose which services to synchronize with, the software is designed to interpose itself between you, and what you want to get done, at every opportunity. I don't use Yahoo! Photos, and ensured it wasn't synchronized. But that didn't stop the software popping up a message every time I took a snap, asking me if I wanted to upload it to Yahoo!

For the Hive Mind set, something hasn't been validated unless it's been published on the interweb. See, for example, the rationale behind "blooks" and "flooks", or the confusion these web cultists have between notions of public and private - things which more mentally balanced people have no problem distinguishing between. With the blog mentality, you just publish something the second it comes into your head. It's must be like suffering from a peculiar kind of brain damage - a technology-induced amnesia.

Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not that "emergent". And nor are most people. The snaps I take with my cameraphone tend to be reminders to myself, or odd photographs that I'm perfectly capable of attaching to an email. Most are never shown to anyone, because, frankly, they're not interesting enough to show anyone. Y!Go's intrusiveness was based on the assumption that I wanted to share everything.

So, after a while, I stopped taking pictures at all.

Your mobile lifestyle! Yahoo! Go's main deck. (Tasks is out of view) And as time wore on, I found I could run fewer and fewer applications concurrently. Even though I'd specified that Y!Go store its messages in folders on the removable MMC card, it gradually ate up available memory on the phone, which is finite, until I could no longer run Opera.

(And here too, the "You're In Control" promise rang hollow: Y!Go doesn't let you choose your preferred browser. It defaults to firing up the Nokia browser, and if you prefer Opera or NetFront, you're out of luck).

Initially I was plagued with incomprehensible messages, which threatened havoc on my mailbox. After poking around in some settings via the Nokia Web Browser, I managed to turn these off.

So we've established that it has some of irritating neediness of a BlackBerry. But does it have the reliability, too?

Alas, while some emails are delivered within five minutes, others aren't. And it so happened that in Barcelona, someone special who I was going to meet had left their phone behind, but had managed to find an internet cafe, and sent me instructions for a rendezvous. Guess what? That one took an hour to arrive - and we missed each other.

And that's supposed to be a "mobile lifestyle"? Thank you, Yahoo!

The one part of the suite that can't be faulted, for reasons that are significant and that I'll expand on in the conclusion of this sorry tale, is the mobile Yahoo! Messenger. This boasts "Cool Features" such as Audibles, group messaging, and sending pictures during chats. It also caches messages sent while you're away. But the most significant of these is a sort of rudimentary VoIP service, which integrates with the Push To Talk button on the handset.

Yahoo! No! - some im

Imagine actually talking ... on a mobile phone! But the IM client scores higher than the other parts of the suite not because of these cool features, but because it allows more filtering: you can ignore contacts, manage your Ignore list, and sign on as "Invisible".

(Quite why anyone wants to do IM in real time on a phone with PC users, with only T9 for input and only one small screen, is a mystery that's immediately explained when you try it. Even with a Nokia bluetooth keyboard, I still didn't feel inclined to use it. There are several chats to switch between, the PC users will always type faster than you, and the difference in speed and more importantly, assumptions, is too great. Perhaps it's because IM chat is more of a background or ambient activity on a large screen PC. Believe me, it's not when you try and do it on a phone. IM and SMS might look similar, but they're so dependent on context, they're as different as sleeping and eating.)

Conclusions

So the "emergent" kids are now meddling in consumer electronics, and the result is a disaster.

Phones are very personal devices that magnify bad design decisions enormously. And services that make sense on a PC don't always map to a phone. PCs don't have to compete with real life in the way phones do.

And it's the cult-like thinking of the web people that really causes the problem, as they assume for example, that we want to publish everything we do.

This cult, which is so fond of berating us for "not getting it!" can get it woefully wrong. It mistakenly believes that computer communications are somehow "social", whereas in fact the web is all about "anti-social software" - it's about filtering and exclusion. This is why the IM client looks better than the other parts of the suite - it offers more opportunity for being selective about who you communicate with and how you appear. Phones, on the other hand, are "social hardware". By definition, I'd say that if you're out and about, and you need to look something up rather than ask someone nearby, you probably shouldn't be making design decisions for mobile technology at all.

So far this disaster has been limited in its impact. Y!Go is scheduled to launch in ten countries, but is initially available on Cingular, in only some parts of the US, and only on a few Series 60 handsets - which are a rare species here anyway. But Yahoo! says it will bundle the software with new Cingular handsets.

Just watch the complaints roll in when that happens.

My experience with Yahoo! Go suggests that PC-centric web services are going to find it hard to transition to acceptance by ordinary people on mobile, limited function technology like phones. CrackBerry users may love it, and it's a great technical accomplishment in a limited sense, but the intrusiveness actually made me think how hard it would be to host my own services on a server somewhere- and I've never had that thought since I started using Yahoo! I don't want to have it again, either.

Finally, what does this mean for the industry? We'll delve into this tantalizing question in more depth tomorrow. The cellular carriers, which these days are divisions of larger, vertically integrated telecomms conglomerates, may know less than nothing about what we want either, but they continue to rake in serious money. Verizon alone earned almost twice as much as Google, Intel and Apple combined last year, for example, which means that not only can they afford to buy political influence, they can afford a lot of flops before they find that one hit - whether it's GPS, m-commerce, or simply making a move on the self-defence market by turning the phone into a portable taser.

For now, if "Yahoo! Go" is the best that the internet services cartel - let's call it "AmaGoohooBay" - can offer, the carriers won't be breaking any sweat.

Google, take heed. ®