Yahoo Challenges Apple with a Cocktail of Mobile Publishing Tools
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.
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.
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 its own home page and news site—and the company can provide similar boosts to partners such as ABC News who want to run the same technology on their websites.
“Knowledge as a Service is the term we coined,” says Fernandez-Ruiz. “You give us data and content, and we will give you content recommendations, personalization, a targeting strategy, and computational advertising to help you make more money.” (Computational advertising is a sub-discipline of computer science, developed partly inside Yahoo’s research division, which aims to show Web and mobile users the best possible ads based on their locations, contexts, or activities.)
Fernandez-Ruiz says Knowledge as a Service “is really our secret sauce at Yahoo—applying science and art at scale.” The more publishers who use Yahoo’s Web technology, after all, the more opportunities the company has to deliver ads or other business-to-business services. Which explains why the Platform Technology Group has been putting a lot of work lately into a set of cross-platform programming and publishing technologies that it calls Cocktails, introduced last November at a Yahoo “Product Runway” event. Livestand is powered by Cocktails— which, like any good cocktail in the real world, has several key ingredients. To understand where Fernandez-Ruiz’s group is going with all this, we need to walk through them one at a time.
Smartphones and tablet apps are a huge boon for consumers. But they’re a huge headache for developers, since the three major mobile platforms use three wildly different programming languages. (Apple’s iOS uses Objective-C, Google’s Android OS is largely based on Java, and Windows Phone is based on C#, originally developed for Microsoft’s .NET initiative.) “Ideally, you’d want a single programming language, because each languages carries with it a lot of luggage—tools, IDEs [integrated development environments], consultants, a whole ecosystem,” says Fernandez-Ruiz. “For every app you build, you need to hire a separate team with separate skills. So your costs go up with every new platform. Plus there are rules on how you get in and what you can do.”
Yahoo expects to open-source all the code behind Mojito “a few weeks from now,” Fernandez-Ruiz says. He says the aim is to allow other mobile developers to experiment with hybrid server/browser architectures and build smartphone and tablet apps that will run well even in parts of the world with poor wireless connectivity.
Chromeless Web Runtime
The second ingredient in Cocktails doesn’t have a brand name yet, which is why it’s currently going by the somewhat clunky name “chromeless Web runtime.” (In keeping with the cocktail theme, I suggest “Rusty Nail.”) This boils down to an effort to bypass the browsers baked into the main mobile platforms. On the iPhone and the iPad, for example, developers who want to include a “Web view” in their apps—that is, any browser-like page that calls information from the Web—are usually forced to use the mobile Safari browser that comes with iOS. That’s a frustration, says Fernandez-Ruiz, because “the browser environment is fully managed,” meaning the local operating system handles key tasks like allocating and deallocating memory. This is a key function on mobile devices, which, as a rule, have less RAM to go around than laptops or desktop machines, and third-party developers would ideally like to control it themselves, or at least have a better picture of what’s going on.
Chromeless Web Runtime is a joint project between Yahoo and two other companies that Fernandez-Ruiz says he can’t yet name. For political reasons, it won’t be open-sourced right away. “In the long run, it is not a technology that we want to be closed,” he says. “We are discussing a number of options for working with others to make it open source.”
The last ingredient in Cocktails will probably never be open-sourced, but it will be available to publishers who want to partner with Yahoo. It’s a private cloud service called Manhattan.
At its core, Manhattan is simply Node.js, a free server-side platform developed by San Francisco-based cloud technology provider Joyent for managing distributed applications. But on top of that, Yahoo has added functions like fault isolation, security, user ID and login systems, and access to C.O.R.E. “You could use Mojito without Manhattan,” Fernandez-Ruiz says. “You could just run your own Node.js on Amazon EC2. But you will be pretty much on your own. We have optimized [Manhattan] to run mojits and give you access to all of these Yahoo APIs: the user ID, the recommendation, the whole Knowledge as a Service stack.”
Then when Forbes wants to come out with an Android version of the app, the same developers simply repurpose the existing mojits, putting them inside a Java wrapper instead. (Fernandez-Ruiz says an Android version of Livestand, demonstrating how Cocktails works on the Google operating system, is coming soon.) In essence, each new Cocktails app would be a standalone, publisher-branded version of Livestand—but simpler, since there won’t be a need to navigate between publications.
Once you know the whole story behind Livestand, the app itself becomes a little easier to parse. In a review of the main social news reader apps, published before my interview with Fernandez-Ruiz, I wrote that Livestand “gets the award for the most agonizing distance between technical virtuosity and actual usability.” In retrospect, that was a little harsh. My main complaints about the app relate to its somewhat confusing navigation scheme and to design choices that, in my eyes, make the individual stories harder to read than they should be. It’s now clear to me that I was missing the point, since Livestand wasn’t really designed for usability. It’s a technical demonstration, aimed at publishers as much as consumers.
“I don’t think we want to be a social news reader,” says Fernandez-Ruiz. “What we want to be is a partner for a lot of publications to gather magazine-style content onto the iPad easily. Where Livestand has not been positioned, as some of the competitors have done, is as an app that gets a bunch of stuff from a number of places, but the brand of the publisher is gone. On Livestand, you will notice that the publisher brand is very obvious everywhere.” That’s precisely because Yahoo sees Livestand as the prototype for a series of independent apps; it’s like a brochure for the Yahoo-powered tablet magazines of the future.
The Data Asset
As everyone knows, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Yahoo over the last few years. The company still runs a huge display-advertising business. But as a child of the first era of dot-com innovation in the 1990s, it hasn’t managed to adapt swiftly to the social networking and media-sharing revolutions. Its stock value has slipped, its advertising revenues haven’t kept up with those of competitors Google and Facebook, and there’s been a lot of turnover in the top ranks. Ex-CEO Carol Bartz was ousted last fall after a fractious split with Yahoo’s board, and was finally replaced this month by former PayPal president Scott Thompson, just before the departure of co-founder Jerry Yang.
The new CEO hasn’t yet laid out his vision for the company. But he did say this week, after the release of the company’s quarterly earnings report, that Yahoo’s proprietary data may be its “single most underrated, under-appreciated and under-used asset.”
Which fits with everything Fernandez-Ruiz told me. “Regardless of what the strategy is for Yahoo, you are going to need storage,” he says. “You are going to need a big data platform. And that is what we have been doing [in the Platform Technology Group]—solving those hard technical infrastructure problems and reducing the technical debt that has accrued over 15 years.”
While Yahoo might look from the outside like a consumer company, Fernandez-Ruiz summarizes, “We also have a lot of B2B businesses, and they all have the same mission, which is to increase segmentation, increase monetization, increase CPMs, increase sell-through. If you multiply all these things together, that’s where the money is for us and for publishers. So in the grand scheme of things, [Cocktails] is a natural outcome. I agree, it’s transformational to our business. But it is a necessary condition for our business going forward.”