How Yahoo! can get an app (or five) on the homescreen of every smartphone

by Thomas Brady in ,


The latest episode of the Talk Show, “The Next Big Thing (feat. MG Siegler)” got me thinking about Yahoo!, and what Marissa Mayer could do to make it a great company again.

I’m sure Ms. Mayer is full of great ideas for what to do with Yahoo!. I’m sure, too, that she’s receiving far more suggestions than she requires. But I haven’t seen anyone suggesting this one.

In case you need/want it, here’s a TL;DR jump.

From my woefully under-informed position, it seems that Yahoo! is currently crammed into a corner while Google, Microsoft, Amazon and maybe even the likes of Apple and Thompson Reuters take up most of the dance floor. Trying to displace Google in the search market seems a tall order. Yahoo! is currently partnered with Microsoft for search capabilities, which makes competing with them on any of their other hobbies awkward. As John Gruber points out in this episode, Yahoo!’s content generation/syndication causes seem to have given up to Google News and real players like Thompson Reuters. A mobile play—at the top of anyone’s list these days—seems crazy, too, as that club has a line wrapping around the corner. Only one of the companies in that list above doesn’t have a mobile platform/device.

What does Yahoo! do really well? What could they do even better? What could they do better than anybody else?

Before I let loose this cerebral flatulence, let me point out the obvious flaw in my idea: I don’t know how to monetize it. That’s your job. I’m just an idea guy. The only dollar signs in any of the textbooks involved in my higher education were either in variable names or world problems having to do with the cost of a ticket for a train leaving Chicago at 7:20 AM, whilst another train left Philadelphia at 7:35 AM.

The Challenge

John Gruber and MG Siegler set a goal for Yahoo! in that episode(paraphrased):

Get an app on the home screen of every mobile device.

I have no idea what app Yahoo! could create that would achieve that goal. I do have an idea that could easily, though, net them several apps on that home screen.

Yahoo! and The Web

For the past few years, if you were learning to write software for just about any platform, the second application you’d write, after a “Hello World” is a Twitter client. For many years before that, it was a Flickr client. Yahoo! has always been one of the companies that best understood how the Web really needed to work—that you didn’t really have a service until you had an API.

Far as I can tell, Yahoo! has a nigh unchallenged stronghold on API-enabled online content platforms. If you’re Apple, apparently, and you want stock market data, or weather data, or sports scores and news, you turn to Yahoo!. That’s a ringing endorsement. What I definitely don’t understand is how this part of your business works. At Polycom I worked with a team of lawyers and outreach people to try to contact someone at Yahoo! to negotiate a similar contract to embed Yahoo! data in Polycom products. I scoured the Yahoo! site for contact information. There’s a single, unpromising form. I found phone numbers on message boards and called them all. Our lawyers called people. One of our outreach people tried to call in a favor from a college friend. We could never get a return call from Yahoo!. Apparently Yahoo! doesn’t make money from this, or they really like exclusivity.

Yahoo! Technology

Yahoo! has an oddly quiet, but impressive technology story. Someone lured Douglas Crockford there in 2005, though he left for PayPal this May. While there, Crockford worked on YUI!, one of the web’s first big UI kits. These days you can choose from a few dozen: jQuery UI, Twitter Bootstrap, Zurb Foundation, a couple from Sencha, etc. Not only was YUI! one of the first sets of interface elements, it was one of the very first libraries to include highly interactive, animated, AJAX-powered interface elements in a web UI library.

There are lots of labs-type projects at Yahoo! that seem to be waiting to be discovered. Yahoo! Pipes is something I can’t believe hasn’t taken off. This is another great example of Yahoo! understanding the true nature of the web: a network of semantically rich objects with APIs to connect them.

And Yahoo!’s still hard at work on this stuff. The more recent announcements around the Cocktails—a suite of technologies using HTML, CSS, Javascript and Node.js to enable web application development for server and client side in one go and a platform for hosting such apps—shows that they’re out there on the cutting edge.

Peanut Butter, Meet Jelly

If you’re building a web app right now, one of the most difficult stages is the one in which you pick your technology stack. There’s always the big ugly framework shoot-out chart, wherein you narrow down your giant list of of frameworks to the few that really have all the features you’re excited about, to the two that actually support all your requirements (including accessibility, localizability, etc.).

Then you get to go figure out where you’re going to get your data. Licensing said data is often a headache.

Next you get to constantly deal with the, “Shouldn’t we just make a native application?” question, that no one with a trustworthy opinion can answer in any final way, yet. We are at a crossroads. This may lead you down the path of tools such as PhoneGap to achieve “native” installation as an app.

In far more cases than one would hope this lands you with:

  1. A web application
  2. A framework like jQuery
  3. A framework like jQuery UI
  4. Possibly another framework for mobile, like jQuery Mobile
  5. A “native” app built with something like PhoneGap, which requires
  6. A fork of your web application to make use of device features

While we’re on the topic, let’s get something out of the way. I don’t think anyone denies that an application built with native application frameworks—whether we’re talking about an application binary written for OS X, iOS, Android, Windows, or whatever you’re using—will outperform a web application running as though native, at least not yet. The reality for many of us, though, is that supporting the repository of codebases necessary to produce native applications for two, three, four or eight native platforms is just not an option. Leveraging web technologies as cross-platform development tools might lead to less-than-the-absolute-best performance and user experience, but that’s a trade-off many people are willing to live with in order to reach 2x, 3x and larger audiences.

TL;DR

Here it is, my complementary billion-dollar idea.

Become the platform for web application development.

A plan so simple as to sound ridiculous. If we were talking about just about any other company, it would be ridiculous. I think Yahoo!, though, is uniquely equipped to do this.

Give us a one-stop-shop for web application development. You already have most of what we need. Make each of the tools best-of-breed, stack them up and get a PhoneGap-like tool online. Keep offering YUI!, Mojito, Manhattan and the like, but also market an integrated toolset that looks like a single all-encompassing toolset that includes a license to integrate Yahoo! data services like Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo! Weather, Fantasy Sports and the rest. Give us the promise of tools like Sencha Touch and PhoneGap, but deliver what they haven't so far: a dependable release schedule that's in lock-step with the platforms we're targeting, giving us new features as they're available, not tens of months later. Give us a development platform in the sky—perhaps another Cocktail—that makes it feasible to share a core library of web application logic across instances tailored for use as a web app, as a native app and as a service for someone else to integrate with Pipes. A one-click build server that spits out web apps, native binaries and SaaS servers. Whereas a Twitter client is the current Hello World2, give us a platform that makes a Twitter-like service the "MyFirstWebApp.html" experience. Do for web application development what Blogger and Wordpress did for content development.

I know I can’t be the first person to come up with that idea. And, Yahoo!, while you may not be the first company to attempt to do such a thing, you’re uniqely positioned to do it.