Here comes Yahoo's own Web browser -- Axis

Yahoo's search group attempts to take control of its destiny by launching its own browser. Surprise: It's good.

Axis replaces the standard search results page with a horizontal, scrollable list of thumbnails. iPad version shown. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Yahoo is announcing tonight that it's getting into the browser business with its new Axis browser. There are versions for iPad and iPhone, and plug-ins for the desktop browsers Chrome, Firefox, IE, and Safari.

The design goal, according to Ethan Batraski, head of product for the Search Innovation Group at Yahoo, is to eliminate the middle step in the usual Web search process: Enter a query, see the results, go to a page. With Axis, you're supposed to be able to go directly from query to page, skipping the step of surfing a sea of links.

The implication that Axis entirely bypasses the need to pick from search results is false, but Axis does nonetheless have a much better way of getting you from searching to visiting a Web page. The browser works well. This is an aggressive product for the struggling Yahoo to launch out of its search group.

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Here's why: Yahoo, which still generates more than a billion dollars a year in revenue from its search division, makes a lot of that money from that second step in the search process. It runs ads on search result pages.

On Axis, there are no search result pages.

Instead, what you get when you search, at least 80 percent of the time, Batraski says, is a horizontal display of Web page thumbnails. (The other 20 percent of the time you get text boxes with results in them.) It's easy to see if one of the pages is what you're looking for, and then you can go there directly. To see the tiles again and go to other results, you just pull down the page from the top. To move forward or backward in the list of results directly from a page you're on, you drag your finger from the right or left. bypassing the results list entirely.

So, to be clear, there actually is a list of search results. It just looks a lot better because it's integrated into the browser. Ads will get inserted into the list of search tiles eventually, assuming the product is a success with users. But for the time being, the more successful Axis is, the more it will drive Yahoo traffic away from search revenues -- which only this last quarter began to recover after years of sliding.

The iPhone version's interface is a little hemmed-in, but still very usable. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

As a tactic for launching the browser, focusing on the user experience above all and forgoing search revenues is probably very wise, since it may be difficult for the browser to make a dent in the market. I asked Batraski about other alterna-browsers that struggled to win major market share, and mostly failed: Flock, Rockmelt, Opera, AT&T's Pogo, and others. Why does Yahoo think it can pull a Chrome with its product?

Distribution, says Batraski. There are 700 million people using Yahoo, and they can all be marketed to. Also, Yahoo distributes browsers (mostly IE with the Yahoo embedded toolbar) to 80 million people a year. The company knows how to get browsers out there, at least on desktop operating systems. But Axis on the desktop is actually not its own browser, but rather a plug-in that works with the browser a user already has. If you use the plug-in's URL and search box in the lower-left of your browser, you'll get Yahoo's results. If you forget it's there and use the browser's standard URL/search box, you get whatever you've already been getting.

One gets the feeling that the desktop versions of Axis exist primarily as accessories to the mobile versions, so users can move between platforms and keep their open tabs and histories intact. When you're logged in, Axis knows what you do on each device and makes it easy to pick up on one where you left off on another.

Mobile is where the action is, so it makes sense that Yahoo threw the bulk of its development love into the tablet and smartphone versions. On the iPad, Axis is simply a great browser. The integrated search feature is intuitive, and being able to move through search results without having to go back to search makes sense. After only a few minutes using it I thought, Why hasn't Google done this yet? It's that good.

Although mobile devices like the iPad come with embedded browsers, Batraski says the product has Apple's blessing. He also said that Apple reps have told him they're not throwing many resources into Apple's own iOS browser, Safari. Axis takes the best that Safari has to offer -- its core rendering engine, Webkit -- and really does make it better. But no matter what Apple says, it's not yet fully behind alternative browsers like Axis: On iOS, you can't change your default browser (unless you jailbreak your device). Click a link in an e-mail message or another app, and your device will open it up in Safari, no matter how in love with Axis you are.

Batraski is convinced this will change eventually, and that if it doesn't, Apple will have a Microsoft-scale antitrust issue on its hands.

What about Android? The Android version of Axis is still in development, and while it's much easier for a user to get an alternative browser installed and embedded in an Android product, it's a pretty safe bet that Google isn't exactly going to roll out the welcome mat for Yahoo's browser. Google already has two of its own browsers for mobile, the Android browser and the still-in-beta Android version of Chrome. And those drive traffic to Google's ads, not Yahoo's. (Firefox, by the way, defaults to using Google for search, so even when people use it instead of Chrome, Google still wins.)

The Axis browser may not conquer the world, but it is a very strong mobile product with an important new design concept for search. It's also a gutsy business move from Yahoo. It's rather refreshing.

 

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