I finally got a chance to play with the new mobile widgets that Yahoo released Monday. I tried Yahoo! Go 3.0 and the revamped Yahoo mobile portal both of which are completely widget based. Users can add and remove widgets, which include Yahoo stalwarts like Mail, News, Finance, etc. as well as the first few examples of third party content. Eventually any developer will be able to submit to widgets to the Widget Gallery but for now there are just three third party widgets, MySpace, eBay and MTV News, for Yahoo Go and six more, Sports Illustrated, recipes from Epicurious, shopping blogs Bargainist, Outblush and Uncrate from Zombie Corp and local movie listings from Big Screen Cinema for the new mobile web portal. Update: MySpace, eBay and MTV are widgets, the others are all snippets. Snippets and widgets are available both on the portal and Yahoo! Go.
First I tried Yahoo Go 3.0. I had no trouble loading it from get.go.yahoo.com using the uberphone, N95-3 Nokia gave me at Mobile Camp SF. This Java application is visually stunning and loaded with features. It combines a full featured email client, which unlike the mobile web version of Yahoo Mail lets you follow links in emails and move emails to folders. There is a Push Email feature but I couldn’t get it to work on the N95, always getting a connection error when I tried to open an email, possible because I’m using WiFi instead of GPRS or HSDPA for connectivity. There’s also map viewer and web browser plus lots of eye candy into a single 700 KB (huge for mobile) .jar file. The mail and maps modules compare favorably in terms of features with Google’s separate standalone Java applications. Maps uses the N95’s GPS and delivers maps, driving directions and local search. It doesn’t do traffic overlays like Google but has a very neat heading feature that displays an arrow to show the direction you are moving, something Google doesn’t do.
I was familiar with Yahoo Go, having used the 2.0 version for a while mostly to check the weather and my Yahoo Mail. I’d always found Yahoo Go a bit slow especially when switching from one module like mail to another such as weather, although the mail module was fine once you got it going. I was hoping that 3.0 had gotten a speed boost but it seems to have become even slower. In addition to slowness switching modules, scrolling is slow everywhere, even in mail which wasn’t a problem in 2.0. Most of the time it doesn’t display an hourglass or other visual wait clue while it’s unresponsive either. I found myself repeating keystrokes thinking they hadn’t registered and then having the extra key presses played back after Go woke up resulting in overshooting my intended link or button.
The user interface, while pretty, has some usability issues too. Yahoo has implemented their own custom controls for text entry. Unlike the native Java text boxes which open a separate window for typing, Yahoo’s are inline, like text fields on a web page, which is nice. But the custom text boxes are slow to respond to key preses and don’t support the N95’s copy and paste functions or entering special characters the “normal” way using the N95’s “pencil” key. I found it very frustrating to do text entry in Yahoo Go until I discovered the deceptively named Insert special charac… item in the Options menu, which appears only when a text field has focus. It brings up the familiar N95 Java text entry window which is responsive, supports cut and paste and lets you enter special characters the normal S60 way.
Yahoo makes much of Go’s “Carousel” main menu interface (top image). Well, it IS a new paradigm, and looks nice, but again, it’s slow. You can’t scroll through it rapidly and you can only see a few of the widgets at a time so unless you have memorized their order you never know whether it would be faster to move left or right to reach a given widget. There is an alternate menu interface, the “Home Page” which the default widget in the Carousel when Go starts up. Click on it and you get a simple scrolling list menu that works well as long as Go doesn’t decide to go to sleep for a while while you are scrolling. Update: The Home page contains content that’s not in the Carousel and vice versa. The Carousel is where Widgets live, the home page is all snippets. Most of the Yahoo widgets have an associated snippet to launch them from the home page but none of the third party ones do.
At this point I have to consider Go 3.0 to be an early Beta, with too many issues to be very useful. I ‘ll probably continue to use it for mail, but not much else. I hope the performance issues can be solved but even if they are I feel that Yahoo is trying to do too many things in one application. Single purpose Java mail and mapping applications work very well on almost any phone as shown by Google Mail an Maps, Flurry Mail, Opera Mini and many more. Trying to combine too many functions results in a monolithic application that runs slowly and only on high end phones. Some of Go’s functions like News, Finance, Photo Viewing and Weather are really browser applications, there’s no reason for them to be part of Go. Losing then would slim down Go which should make it run better.
The new mobile web site (middle image) is a much better user experience. There are no performance issues at all using it in the N95’s WebKit based browser and it looks great too. In a direct comparison of the Finance Widgets in Go and the Portal, a story from Motley Fool loaded as 10 separate pages in Go with a a delay of about 10 seconds as each new page was loaded and intermittent freezing while scrolling. In the browser the same page loaded in it’s entirety in the 10 seconds with smooth, near instantaneous scrolling from top to bottom. It looked nicer in the browser too with larger, sharper images and a generally more attractive presentation.
Yahoo has made their new widget enabled mobile web portal rather hard to find. On Yahoo’s promotional web page they say:
“… if you have an: iPhone, Windows Mobile device or Nokia S60 phone: 1. Simply go to “m.yahoo.com” on your phone 2. Click on the ‘widget’ icon to browse the Widget Gallery”
If only it were that easy. First of all, the URL is wrong. It’s beta.m.yahoo.com not m.yahoo.com. I never would have found it if Russell Beattie hadn’t posted the URL as part of his own great analysis of Yahoo’s mobile widget strategy. Secondly, not just any Windows Mobile or Nokia S60 phone will work, only the very latest ones. My N95 gets the new page both on the phone and if I use Firefox’s User Agent Switcher extension to change to the N95’s UA. I don’t have any Windows Mobile phones and the only other S60 I have is an accident Nokia 3650. I didn’t expect the 3650 to work and indeed visiting, beta.m.yahoo.com with it just redirects to Yahoo’s old widget-less mobile site. Playing around with the User Agent Switcher I found that Yahoo is very picky indeed about which phones it lets have widgets. Nokia’s E61, N80, N73, N70, 6681 and 6620 all got the old site without widgets. The only S60 that actually seems to work is the N95! It was the same story with Windows Mobile, if I sent the brand new ATT Tilt (HTC Kaiser) user agent, I got widgets but not with the Sprint PPC6800 or the Orange SPV C500 user agents.
I was surprised how much the new Yahoo web portal looks like an iPhone web app, even when its running on a Symbian or Windows Mobile device. The vertical scrolling menu with gradient dividers and floating highlight, the rounded corners on text input fields and the flat monochrome icons all say “iPhone” to me. I have a feeling that Yahoo built an iPhone version of their existing portal first and then decided to use it as part of their “Open” answer to Google’s Android. Don’t get me wrong the new portal looks and works very well indeed. It’s light years ahead of Yahoo’s stodgy and rather unattractive old mobile portal.
Once I looked at the mobile pages and especially the code behind them I started to understand why Yahoo is restricting the new portal to so few phones. The markup is heavily customized for each device with tons of hard coded CSS width attributes that are different for each of the three (iPhone, Tilt and N95) versions. It looks like Yahoo has to adapt the CSS and QA the portal for each device. But I can’t see why they don’t support the N73 which shares the same browser and screen dimensions with the N95.
I’m sure that Yahoo will support more phones with the new portal soon. I’ve got to wonder if tweaking the style sheet for each handset is scalable. It sure isn’t if they have to do each one manually by trial and error. I mean there are thousands of different mobile devices in use worldwide. Maybe Yahoo has a rules engine that generates the CSS based on a few parameters like screen dimensions and browser family. Otherwise they really need to come up with a more generic design that supports widgets and displays well on a variety of browsers without the need to tweak the stylesheet for each handset.
So what about the widgets themselves? The Yahoo ones are full featured but I’m pretty sure they weren’t created with the Blueprint widget building language. The third party ones are basically just RSS feeds, except for the MySpace and eBay’s which mostly duplicate the functionality of those site’s existing mobile web pages. The eBay widget lets you search for items and bid or add an item to your watch list. Items you are currently watching or bidding on are displayed on the eBay widget’s start page. But there are only tiny icon like images of each item. The MySpace widget lets you view your own and your Friends’ status, pictures and profiles, and read and write messages. It doesn’t seem to be possible to edit your profile or even change your mood or status using the widget.
At this point Yahoo mobile widgets are more promise than practical. Yahoo needs to extend support to more browsers and open up widget development to the world, both of which they have promised to do. I’m really looking forward to creating WapReview and YesWAP widgets and putting them out before Yahoo’s huge audience.