The New Yahoo Messenger App Is Great for Drunk-Texters
The most exciting feature in Yahoo’s new messaging app didn’t work at all during most of my meeting with Yahoo to talk about its new messaging app. There was some issue with the new Flickr backend the feature relies upon. Just before the end of the meeting, project lead Austin Shoemaker discovered, hey, it was working. He opened a message in the slick new app on his iPhone, tapped the button to insert a picture, and selected 25 photos. Send.
A second later—literally one second, maybe less—all 25 photos popped up on everyone else’s phone. Jeff Bonforte, SVP of communications products at Yahoo, practically giggled. “We’ve had so many fights,” he says, “because people tell us this is impossible.” The technical side is complex, but boils down to this: Instead of taking a photo from my phone and placing it on your phone, everything happens in the cloud, so you’re streaming a photo up from my phone and down to yours simultaneously. It uses the same tech to let you scroll back through weeks, months, years of a conversation and see everything without eating much storage on your phone. And because everything’s on a server and not your phone, Messenger offers an invisible unsend, where you can just *poof* make a message disappear long after you sent it. (That’ll save many people from embarrassing drunk texts.)
The platform underpinning Yahoo Messenger, called Iris, will power many other Yahoo products soon. It has many jobs, but one in particular: make it ridiculously easy to share stuff and then talk about that stuff.
Yahoo Messenger was once a big name in the instant-messaging space. (When it launched in 1998, it was called Yahoo Pager.) It’s mostly been abandonware for awhile now, an adorably ugly relic of a time when away messages were a defining part of your personality. During the past year—“a year and a week,” Bonforte says, not that he’s counting, and not that he’s nervous after blowing a self-induced six-month deadline—Yahoo re-tooled the app for a new era. This is the first in what Yahoo hopes will be a new breed of apps.
Yahoo is struggling to remain relevant. It’s bought company after company over the last few years, often without obvious logic. It still has hundreds of millions of users every month, but has lost all the cool it once had. Now the company, and its CEO, are in a crisis of sorts. So they hope Messenger can be the first piece of a new puzzle: with it, and eventually many other apps, Yahoo’s trying to bring together everything it knows and has into a more powerful whole. Messenger borrows tech and expertise from 10 companies, Bonforte says, but three in particular: Xobni for contacts, Flickr for photos, and Tumblr for the ridiculously huge and searchable GIF library. The whole thing was built by the Cooliris team, led by Shoemaker.
The big question Bonforte’s team tried to answer is, what do people want in a Yahoo messaging app? You’re not going to beat WhatsApp as a texting replacement, and, oh yeah, people still like texting just fine. The team landed on the idea that people like sharing photos, and like chatting in groups. Many groups, of different sizes, all at once. Everything came out of that. “We even think of one-to-one chats as just small groups,” Bonforte says.
The app is clean and polished, with circle avatars and … whatever, you get it, it looks like a messaging app. It’ll work on iOS and Android, inside Yahoo Mail on desktop, and in a standalone Web app at messenger.yahoo.com. For the most part, it’ll feel familiar—you can chat with one person or 100, and messages appear chronologically. At its core, it’s a cleaner and nicer take on GroupMe.
Yahoo has big plans, though. The team is still working on how to indicate presence, for one thing. Away messages don’t mean anything anymore; in the smartphone age, no one’s ever away. Shoemaker thinks the more interesting method is like a radar ping—if you have the app and opened it 10 minutes ago, you’re probably going to get the message, but if you haven’t used it in a month the odds go down. Facebook’s good at this, Bonforte says, and Yahoo’s still working on it.
At one point during our meeting, Bonforte and Shoemaker started brainstorming all the ways they could better serve low-bandwidth users. Do you ask before uploading full-res images? Do you only upload it when someone else wants to download it? They’ll get to that too.
There’s lots to get to.
One feature that’s apparently already done but not yet released, much to Bonforte’s chagrin: comments. They’re trying hard to solve that most obnoxious group-chat problem, the one where you’re all having 12 conversations at a time and keeping up with what’s happening becomes untenable. There are a few features for this already, like the ability to like a message instead of everyone having to say “k” or “cool.” But soon, you’ll be able to comment on a photo or GIF, essentially creating a side-thread in your conversation. You can have groups within groups, or duplicate those groups to make other groups, or add someone to your group, or leave a group. Groups!
They’re also thinking about what you might call the WeChat effect, the brand- and app-ification of the messaging app. Bonforte likes the idea, thinks it’s the future, but doesn’t quite know how to approach it. “What happens when you give brands a way to reach people cost-free?” he asks. Spam happens. He thinks WeChat expanded too fast, and is trying to figure out what he can learn from Yahoo’s history with email to automatically discern what a user should see, what it should look like, and how important it should feel. And he’s particularly interested in the idea of not bringing everything into a messaging platform, but in making the same messaging platform available everywhere.
But the goal was just to get the platform out there and start improving it. (They thought about testing it first on fantasy football, but “super awesome smack talk” felt a little small.) Iris is maybe the closest thing yet to a Unified Theory of Yahoo: It’s a connective tissue of many different pieces, bringing messaging to everything and everything to messaging. You find stuff you like—hopefully on Yahoo!—and now you have a place to talk about it.
Bonforte swears Yahoo’s not trying to take on Slack on one side, or WhatsApp on the other. He’s trying to chart a new path, a middle ground with plenty of features but plenty of fun, too. He’s crossing his fingers for a hundred million users, he says, because that’s the number you need to really matter. And he’s thinking that giving people an impossibly fast way to share photos with their friends might just get them there.