Yahoo Challenges Apple with a Cocktail of Mobile Publishing Tools

1/26/12Follow @wroush

This is a story about what goes on under the hood of your smartphone or tablet device. It’s also about Yahoo, the troubled Santa Clara-CA based advertising and information giant. But Yahoo doesn’t make a single mobile gadget of its own. So what’s the connection?

It turns out that Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) has ambitious plans to help publishers get more efficient about how they push content out to mobile devices. Specifically, Yahoo wants to become the new middleman of the mobile publishing world, giving media companies software that they could use to reach users of iPhones, Android devices, Windows phones, and other gadgets without having to bow to the programming approaches favored by their powerful makers—namely Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

To show how the system might work, Yahoo launched a fancy personalized news app back in November called Livestand. The app lets you select feeds from Yahoo partners like Forbes and ABC News and browse their stories on customized, magazine-like pages. It’s full of nifty user-interface elements like a 3D sideways-scrolling publication gallery. So far Livestand only runs on the Apple iPad, and at first glance it’s pretty similar to Flipboard, Zite, Google Currents, and a number of other social news reader apps. But Livestand’s true importance is as a demonstration of what’s coming. The unique and potentially revolutionary thing about the app is its software design: it may look and act like a native iOS app, but it’s mostly written in Javascript and HTML5, the languages of the Web.

Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz

How Yahoo pulled this off, and what it could mean for content owners who don’t want to put all their eggs in Apple’s basket—or Google’s, or Microsoft’s—was the focus of a long Xconomy interview last week with Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz, chief architect for Yahoo’s platform technology group in Sunnyvale, CA. I’d heard Fernandez-Ruiz speak before about how Yahoo is betting on HTML5—the next-generation version of the markup language underlying all Web pages—as an antidote to overreliance on proprietary operating systems like Apple’s iOS. “If you only work in iOS you are bound to the rules of iTunes,” he said at a December talk in San Francisco. “Publishers want pixel-precise, ‘Cupertino-like’ experiences—and we can do that, but also make layouts fluid,” he said.

I wanted to know more about exactly how Yahoo can do this, so I invited Fernandez-Ruiz to my office and quizzed him about the state of mobile software architecture, the role of the Platform Technology Group inside Yahoo, and the true significance of Livestand. The story he told will be eye-opening for anyone who was under the impression that the future of mobile apps is in Apple and Google’s hands alone. Those two companies may control the lion’s share of the smartphone market at the moment, but if Yahoo goes through with plans to share the tools behind Livestand with outside developers, it could help push the siloed mobile-app world back in the direction of the open Web, where no single company is able to dictate how online software and services should work.

The first thing you need to understand about Yahoo’s publishing vision is that it’s coming from the Platform Technology Group. This is the same part of the company that created and then open-sourced key technologies that are now part of the Web’s infrastructure, such as Hadoop, which allows companies to run big, distributed software systems, and YUI, a library of JavaScript tools for building rich Internet applications. Yahoo built many of these tools as part of an effort that began more than half a decade ago to reduce what Fernandez-Ruiz calls a “technical debt.” The company was weighed down by all of the separate technologies its engineers had built to support services like Yahoo Music and Yahoo Movies, and it needed a central platform. “There was a realization around that time that we had to switch the company from being vertical to being horizontal, and start creating reusable technology that we could deploy across the whole place,” he says. “That is how Hadoop got started, for example.”

Technologies created by the Platform Technology Group, such as Yahoo’s Content Optimization and Relevance Engine (C.O.R.E.), also help the company and its partners tailor content to appeal to specific users based on their demographics. Fernandez-Ruiz says click-throughs increased 300 percent after Yahoo applied C.O.R.E. to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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