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If the Internet portal wars were a horse race, here's how it would sound, somewhere around the far turn (read out loud in your best horse-race announcer voice): "And still ahead with a comfortable lead is Google, it's Google ahead by five lengths. But wait! Coming up fast on the outside is Yahoo! It's Yahoo, moving up fast. Google is still ahead by four lengths, wait, make that three lengths..." Well, you get the idea. Actually, that phrase in the first sentence - "Internet portal wars" - should have grabbed your attention right away.
What war? Didn't Google leave them all in the dust years ago? Apparently not, based on the new face of Yahoo.
Google, somehow, gets all the glory these days for its efforts in trying to aggregate all information (even your very personal information) into one overall portal. But Yahoo is looking to make a comeback, and over the past few weeks, they've come up with some innovations that are turning heads.
On the other hand, some of their new services are not necessarily ready for prime time. Like when Yahoo Mail tries to display Hebrew messages - crucial for many local users! If you use Yahoo mail, you may have noticed the service's new "beta mail" look. Me, I thought I had downloaded and installed a pirated copy of Microsoft Outlook while I was in a trance the first time I noticed it a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, it does have a slick, Outlook-style look, and all of a sudden, it's looking a lot more aesthetic than Gmail, which has become my primary Web-based e-mail (I admit it's because of the snob factor; any service that's invitation only is likely to be a bit more selective than the others!). What before had seemed splashy and messy - i.e. the Web circa 1997 - now seems neat and even pretty, down to the Outlook style panes, calendar, and contact list (it also does instant messaging, if you have Yahoo Messenger installed).
The new Yahoo Mail is based on the Oddpost mail program (http://www.oddpost.com), purchased by the portal last year. It's still considered a beta product, though, and perusing blogs and review Web sites, I found plenty of people who said they like it, but... Among the complaints were sluggishness in display and refresh. But, like with all betas, these issues will certainly be worked out. If you miss the old Yahoo, though, don't worry; just click on "switch back" (it's right under the bold-faced "welcome" on top of the mail area) and you'll return to the old HTMLish Yahoo Mail display, instead of the Ajax-style beta look. Either way, you'll still have your 1GB of Yahoo Mail (but of course, Gmail, with its current 2.7 GB of space, still beats Yahoo on that point).
But folks who use Yahoo for their Hebrew correspondence are potentially in for some frustrating times. If you get a lot of mail in Hebrew, you're going to have to make a solid commitment to using the Yahoo Mail beta. In experiments around the office, users found that trying to return to the "old" mail setup after trying the beta yielded unreadable characters in Hebrew messages that formerly displayed correctly. And it's not just an encoding issue on a specific computer - once you log onto the mail beta, your account apparently irrevocably changes a setting for your account on Yahoo's servers so that any computer you use to log onto Yahoo Mail anywhere, whether with the beta mail or the old system look, will display your Hebrew messages as gibberish.
Fortunately, this display problem is resolved in the beta setup: On the mail menu bar (the one that starts with "reply"), there is a menu called "more actions" at the bottom of which is a menu selection called "set encodings." One of the Hebrew settings on the Middle East selection should do the trick, especially if you're using an English language version of your operating system. Yahoo has not always been as friendly to Hebrew users as other services, according to many locals, so the buzz on this in Hebrew blogs was positive.
That's fine for those who like the Yahoo mail beta look. But for those who don't, or whose computers for some reason don't work properly with the beta, it's a major problem - attempting to display Hebrew messages on the old Yahoo mail screen shows lots of Xs and Os instead of alephs" and bets, and there's no tic-tac-toe game going on here. The only solutions are to right click on each message and change the display encoding (Hebrew or Unicode should do it) - or to upgrade your computer to work with Yahoo Mail beta.
In Internet Explorer 6, at least, there's no way to change the default encoding display with a US English version of Windows (the Yahoo message display problem described here is not an issue for users of Hebrew versions of Windows), so you have to change the encoding on every message you want to read using the old Yahoo system. It's an obvious Yahoo Mail bug and, of course, Yahoo states very clearly that the product is in beta - but it's still plenty annoying for people who are used to working one particular way and are now forced to move onto something else (sort of like my recent description of the way Microsoft is distributing Internet Explorer 7). And, unfortunately, you can't automatically forward messages to a service (like Gmail) that works fine with Hebrew either, unless you pay Yahoo $20 a year for premium services. So, if you use Yahoo Mail as your primary e-mail account and you get lots of Hebrew messages, make sure you're sure about the beta before you use it - because there's no turning back!
More successful in Yahoo's attempts to rebuild itself is its new voice phone service offerings. Here, Yahoo is challenging not only Google, which has its own little project in Google Talk, but VOIP companies like Vonage, which Yahoo has made sure to beat on price. The phone itself (about $100 retail) hooks up to your computer's USB port and allows, of course, cordless conversation. The base station can also be plugged into a regular phone jack to allow callers on regular PSTN lines, as well.
The most interesting aspect of Yahoo's phone service is its integration with Yahoo Messenger. Assuming that the majority of time you spend speaking on the phone is with people you also IM, the Yahoo service can be a great money, as well as time saver for you. PC to PC phone calls are free, and your Messenger contacts are integrated into the phone's contact menu, so you just have to click through a few menus in order to call them. Non-messenger callers using landlines can reach you through your Yahoo "Phone Out" number, which costs $29.95 per year and will be assigned to you in almost any US or UK area code (they're fresh out of New York City numbers, though). With your Yahoo phone number in the system, can dial out to anyone capable of receiving a phone call on any type of line, as well.
Those who may be most interested in the new Yahoo phone and voice services are "traditional" VOIP services like Vonage, Packet8 and others than require you to attach an ATA (Analog Terminal Adapter) between your router and phone. Vonage and their kin offer one service, but Yahoo et al can offer many, many services, all supported by advertising. And like a big discount chain, Yahoo and the others can drop the price of a service as low as they want - to nothing, in fact - and live to sell another day, unlike VOIP providers who have only one product to sell.
Rates for calls to and from Israel were very low - about 2 cents a minute to land lines (http://voice.yahoo.com), significantly cheaper than Vonage's 5 cents per minute (http://www.vonage.com/intrates.php).
It's also cheaper than Skype (http://www.skype.com/products/skypeout/rates), which has become a major information portal contender since its acquisition by eBay earlier this year. Whether Yahoo's prices will stay that low, however, is anyone's guess.
And then there's Israel. According to the terms on the Yahoo Voice signup page (http://voice.yahoo.com) the service is "Intended for use by US residents only." However, logging onto the purchase page displayed my address and location (in Israel) as the address of record for signing up for the service (I don't recall ever giving my address to Yahoo, but they've got some smart folks over there, apparently). Even more important, one can pay for the Phone Out number with a credit card issued by an Israeli bank.
And, of course, Yahoo is anxious to serve Israeli customers, just like it's anxious to serve customers everywhere. Google is earning billions in ad revenue, and Yahoo, along with MSN and Skype.
Google no doubt has some other tricks up its sleeve, as well as more free services to keep those all important eyeballs on their pages - tricks that will be met and matched by Yahoo, MSN and others.
Competition among the big Internet brands will probably get more fierce, which can only end up benefiting the likes of us (check out http://www.gizmoproject.com/learnmore-allcallsfree.html if you really want to save a lot of money on your phone bill).
Once Yahoo gets its Hebrew e-mail issues resolved, I predict, the portal will make a big comeback, netting more customers - and eyeballs, and advertising dollars - all over the world, including locally.