Throughout her tenure as CEO, Marissa Mayer insisted that Yahoo would be able to win by playing to its strengths. By focusing on a few of its “core” areas, like email and news, the thinking went, Yahoo would be able recast its mobile business and make its long-awaited turnaround.
That dream is now dead. Yahoo announced its sale to Verizon earlier this week. As part of the deal, Verizon gets Yahoo’s media properties, advertising products and, yes, all the mobile apps the company once staked its future on.
SEE ALSO: Yahoo has been sold. But what does this mean?
So what went wrong? Well, it’s complicated. Looking back at the dozens of apps launched or redesigned under Mayer’s leadership, they overwhelmingly fall into two buckets: the old standbys leftover from Yahoo’s days of web dominance (Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Weather, Yahoo Messenger, etc.) and the new upstarts — many the result of Mayer’s numerous acquisitions.
Yahoo’s new apps, were uninspired and failed to differentiate from competitors at nearly every turn.
But, on both counts, almost all of those apps have proven to be complete failures. The apps representing Yahoo’s legacy services turned out to be little more than the web versions, repackaged for smartphones, that many users had already abandoned long ago, or simply weren’t interested in a mobile version in the first place.
The new apps, meanwhile, were uninspired and failed to differentiate from competitors at nearly every turn. The result is that Yahoo had a huge portfolio of mobile apps that no one really cared about and failed to produce any meaningful innovations.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few bright spots along the way — Yahoo Weather being the most celebrated. Launched in 2013, the app used Flickr photography to highlight weather conditions in a design that was so beautiful it reportedly made Jony Ive jealous. It won Apple’s Design Award in 2013, and Apple even borrowed elements for its redesign of the iPhone Weather app in iOS 7. Even now it’s still well-reviewed and consistently ranks as one of the top weather apps in the App Store, even though it’s overall position has fallen significantly (the introduction of ads in 2014 likely didn’t help on this front).
But a weather app — even an excellent one — can only do so much. Beautiful as it is, users simply don’t spend that much time checking the forecast so Yahoo Weather was never going to be a significant source of engagement. And with newer apps like Dark Sky (currently the No. 1 weather app in the App Store) and Carrot Weather (No. 10), it’s clear that even the weather category isn’t safe from innovative upstarts taking over.
The acqui-hire strategy
Yahoo bet big on acquisitions. Under Mayer, the company acquired dozens of promising startups with the hopes that their engineers could jumpstart Yahoo’s fledgling mobile business. During an appearance at Fortune’s Global Forum in November 2015, Mayer said these acquisitions resulted in “some of the best teams we have…. We try and give them that autonomy and accountability and the resources they need to keep working on some of their missions and their ideas inside the company,” she said.
Indeed, these acquisitions (check out Gizmodo’s list of all 53 of them here) brought much-needed talent to the company, but many of the new mobile products that resulted were met with little more than a collective yawn from the smartphone-carrying public.
In the last year alone, Yahoo launched Yahoo Video Guide, a comprehensive guide to streaming content across dozens of services, Yahoo Esports, where you can find tournament broadcasts and news, and Radar, a travel app that provides local recommendations. The company also appears to be beta testing a Quora-like question and answer app called Hive that looks more like a reimagined version of the infamous Yahoo Answers than anything else (disclaimer: it’s invite-only for now so I haven’t been able to test it out myself.)
Yahoo appears to be testing a new app called Hive that looks like a mobile version of Yahoo Answers.
It sounds like a joke: That Yahoo would create an app in 2016 — amid an ever accelerating tailspin toward irrelevancy — that essentially amounts to a repackaged version of Yahoo Answers is certainly laughable. But more than that, it underscores the rest of Yahoo’s app failures. As its competitors were investing in the new technological frontiers of artificial intelligence or virtual reality, Yahoo hesitated. Instead, it pushed out half-baked attempts at ideas its users never wanted or simply repackaged web-based services into smartphone-sized wrappers, the waited for the ad revenue to roll in.
If ever Yahoo had an opportunity to make an impact with one of its services, it was Yahoo Mail, which had hundreds of millions of users at its peak. But Yahoo was inexplicably slow to release major updates or significant new features, despite its 2013 acquisition of email startup Xobni for a reported $48 million (Xobni’s founder Jeff Bonforte still oversees Yahoo Mail as the senior vice president of communications products.)
Following multiple iterations (and some very big stumbles) on desktop, Yahoo rolled out its first major redesign of its Mail app under Mayer in April 2014. Well, it was sort of a redesign, anyway: It boasted a splashy new look with a few minor performance improvements. But the update didn’t bring any new features to how it actually handled email, despite the popularity of the feature-rich Mailbox and other email upstarts. By then, these apps, with customizable gestures and the ability to schedule messages to read later, had completely changed our expectations of mobile email.
Yahoo Mail, on the other hand, did none of that. Instead, the update added info from Yahoo News, Weather and Finance — effectively making Yahoo Mail more like… Yahoo’s home page.
It was more than a year later, in October 2015, when Yahoo redesigned the redesign and finally brought new features to the app.
That version refreshed the UI (links to Yahoo News and other Yahoo properties were made less visible — likely due to lack of use) and added new gesture-based controls that made managing emails much more similar to Mailbox, Outlook and other popular email clients.
The update also added the ability to use multiple types of email accounts and a new Account Key feature that used push notifications in place of an account passwords. Account Key was the first really new idea Yahoo had tried with email, and it was a good one — passwords are certainly in need of disruption. But by then it was far too late.
Yahoo Mail continues to enjoy a large user base, but it hasn’t managed to do anything truly innovative, much less keep pace with competition. Google has the AI-powered Inbox and Microsoft managed to make Outlook into one of the best email apps around, but Yahoo Mail remains little more than a punchline.
By either waiting so long to deliver certain features (customizable swipes and multiple types of accounts) or ignoring them altogether (the ability to snooze emails for later), Yahoo managed to all parts of its audience: Power users expected those features years earlier while the legacy users likely didn’t care about them to begin with.
An acquisition that predated Mayer, Flickr is perhaps only second to Tumblr when it comes to Yahoo properties with the most wasted potential. Once the web 2.0 darling, Yahoo all but ignored Flickr after acquiring it (check out this still excellent 2012 piece from Gizmodo detailing the many ways Yahoo screwed up the Flickr acquisition form the very beginning.)
Considering it took Yahoo more than a year after the launch of the App Store to launch a dedicated app (and even longer to make one that users actually liked), it’s not surprising that it was pretty easily supplanted by Instagram as the go-to destination for mobile photographers.
By the time Mayer came to Yahoo, Flickr was in worse shape than ever.
Needless to say, by the time Mayer came to Yahoo, Flickr was in worse shape than ever. And, to her credit, she made it a top priority early on. On the same day Yahoo announced it acquired Tumblr in May 2013, Mayer hosted a splashy event in Times Square to show off a freshly redesigned Flickr. In addition to a visual overhaul, all users would get a free terabyte of storage.
It should have been great news for users — and many did like the new look and free storage — but many of the app’s longtime paid users were disappointed with the move. While Flickr Pro users were able to keep their accounts, there was little incentive for them to do so. It didn’t help that one of the only available upgrades after the relaunch was the ability to remove ads — for twice the cost of a previous Flickr Pro account. And despite all the effort put into the relaunch, it never really was able to breathe new life into the service.
When looking for Flickr’s biggest missed opportunity under Mayer we can, again, look to Google. More specifically, Google Photos.
Launched last year, the photo-management app quickly became one of the most popular utility apps around for its nearly unlimited storage, excellent organizational and sharing features and a powerful, intelligent search function.
Flickr was certainly well-positioned to occupy a similar space. Part of Yahoo’s whole rationale for the acquisition was the sheer amount of searchable user-generated image data it had. Certainly, with the right engineers and a little foresight, this could have been leveraged into a Google Photos-like experience. Some of the pieces were even there. Flickr began giving away 1TB of free storage years before Google Photos came on the scene. It even beat Google Photos to the punch (by a few weeks) in launching some intelligent search features that used image recognition.
But despite its head start, Flickr’s features fell behind Google Photos almost immediately. Worse, the company was never able to articulate an overarching vision for the service.
There’s not much left to say about Tumblr that Mashable’s Seth Fiegerman didn’t already cover in his exhaustive look at all the ways Yahoo derailed Tumblr, but suffice to say that Yahoo’s mishandling of the once-hot social network, combined with the rise of newer, hotter, services like Snapchat resulted in Tumblr’s apps falling into near irrelevancy along with the rest of the platform.
Tumblr’s app, once in the top 20 apps, now hovers around the 110th position in the App Store, according to app analytics firm App Annie.
Yahoo News Digest
The product of one of Mayer’s splashier acquisitions, Yahoo News Digest was one of the company’s early attempts at app innovation under Mayer.
The app was rooted in Summly, a summarization app created by teenage developer Nick D’Aloisio. Yahoo acquired the app with much fanfare in 2013 for a reported $30 million (a sum that continues to puzzle us.) Nevertheless, Mayer then tapped the young developer to be a product manager (it was reported he committed to an 18-month stint at the company) for a new news app. The result was Yahoo News Digest, a news app that used algorithmically generated summaries — and a team of human editors — to provide daily “briefings” on the day’s headlines.
Though much more polished than Summly ever was, the app’s only standout “feature” was its almost total lack of customizability. The app serves up the same handful of stories to each user, regardless of their interests. Aside from region-specific editions, there is no way to personalize what content you see. Only care about business and politics? Too bad, you’ll see sports and entertainment, too.
A later update added the ability to “read extra stories” but even this is just a standard feed based on Yahoo News’ top headlines. (“We don’t allow any customization because our promise is to deliver you the most important stories whether or not you want to to read it,” D’Aloisio told us in 2014.)
Still, the app was generally well-received — winning Apple’s Design Award in 2014 — and user reviews have been mostly positive. Despite this, it never once cracked the App Store’s top 100 after its first week in the store, despite a relatively good position in the App Store’s News category, according to App Annie. In fact, the app’s overall position is now so low it hasn’t appeared in App Annie’s rankings for more than a year.
D’Aloisio left the company in 2015, almost exactly 18 months after joining and the app appears to have effectively died upon his departure. Yahoo News Digest remains in the App Store but hasn’t gotten a single update in more than a year.
Like Yahoo itself, much of the app’s failure seems to be due to an identity crisis: it’s not clear who the app was supposed to be for. Serious news junkies want more than a few stories a day. Yes, current versions of the app allow you to “read extra stories,” but the feature is so hidden it looks — and feels — like an afterthought rather than an intentional experience. And even those with more specific interests want something customizable that they can have a say in curating.
That’s not to say the core premise of the app didn’t have merit. The fact that TheSkimm, anewsletter startup that breaks down the day’s biggest headlines into easily digestible snippets, has flourished as much as it has is certainly a testament to that. But while TheSkimm’s summaries are written to sound like your best friend explaining the news to you, Yahoo News Digest’s are as dry as the newsprint they aim to supplant.
In 2015, Yahoo tried its hand at a new type of messaging app with an app called Livetext, an app for silent video chats. Users “called” each other, but instead of, you know, talking, they chatted via big text overlays on the video. Needless to say, the app, a pretty clear attempt at Snapchat’s demographic, barely registered.
The app was sort of fun, but the premise — combining text and video but ditching the audio — felt gimmicky and was hardly compelling enough to inspire users to ditch Snapchat or other messaging apps, if it even made it onto their radar to begin with. As with so many other Yahoo apps, it was aesthetically interesting but failed to deliver anything real users actually wanted. Instead, it overwhelmingly felt like yet another Snapchat ripoff.
The app debuted in the top 150 apps in the U.S. App Store, according to App Annie, but soon declined to the 1,231 position less than two weeks later. The company axed the app earlier this year amid a bigger cost-cutting push.
With Livetext clearly a dud, Yahoo once again tried its hand at messaging. This time, the tech giant turned to an old favorite with a redesigned version of Yahoo Messenger — brought back to life as a mobile app in late 2015.
Like so many of Yahoo’s other apps, Messenger was well-designed. It handled one-on-one and group chats with ease and even leveraged Flickr (for photo sharing) and Tumblr (for a built-in GIF search) pretty nicely. It also — like so many Yahoo apps before it — failed to take.
Though hugely dominant in the early 2000s, the fact remained that Yahoo Messenger hadn’t been culturally relevant in nearly 10 years. By late 2015, the messaging universe was already incredibly mature. If Yahoo was hoping to launch a new product that could capture new users in any meaningful way, the company needed to do more than slap some Tumblr GIFs on an pretty UI.
The app also lacked end-to-end encryption, which was already becoming a sought-after feature for messaging apps in 2015. Though it upgraded its security from previous versions of the app, at launch it supported TLS encryption only. “We don’t do end-to-end encryption right now; there’s a tradeoff between convenience and security there, and we’re evaluating that,” the app’s product manager told me at the time.
Worse still, Yahoo Messenger’s legacy users — whom the company was ostensibly relying on to help prop up the app — hated it. The app has overwhelmingly 1-star reviews in the App Store, according to App Annie. Chief among their complaints is that they were “forced” into using the new version of the app after the company retired the legacy mobile version of Yahoo Messenger.
The Yahoo app
Unlike Google, Yahoo has never made a compelling case for why anyone would want to use its self-titled mobile app, which is essentially its homepage in app form. There, you can browse the latest from Yahoo News and Finance and also search the web, though Yahoo Search is not featured prominently.
Much ink has been spilled discussing Mayer’s fixation on competing with Google in search. That goal may have stopped being realistic long ago (Yahoo claimed just over 12% of the US market as in February 2016, according to comScore), but surely the main Yahoo app would have been a prime place to showcase the company’s search engine. Yahoo could have used the app as a place to experiment with predictive search or assistants, perhaps.
Instead, the app mainly acts as a portal to read news from Yahoo’s media properties: Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Finance — each of which has its own app. And, judging by App Store reviews, it’s also popular among some of Yahoo’s more dedicated commenters.
What could have been
Pundits and analysts will likely debate for a long time whether not there was anything Mayer could really have done to truly turn things around at Yahoo. But what is clear now is that, at nearly every opportunity, the company failed to define the conversation in mobile or provide any overarching vision of what their mobile business should stand for.
At the same time, the company failed to identify and adapt to the bigger trends that were shaping the mobile industry. While giants like Google and Microsoft and Facebook (and the scrappy startups around them) were investing in AI, virtual reality, strong encryption and gesture-based UIs, Yahoo was still favoring aesthetics over features, clean lines over innovation. Despite its vast resources, and growing pool of engineer talent, Yahoo simply fell behind — hoping refreshed mobile versions of its web-based services wold be enough to keep the company afloat.
And while we’ll never know what could have been had Mayer and Yahoo gone a different route, we know, at least, that simply being “mobile first” was never really enough.
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