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Yahoo unveils Livetext, allowing people to text using silent videos

The new app is a way for Yahoo to amp up its mobile offerings, as it hopes to build up its messaging services for smartphone users.

Yahoo has been working to expand in mobile as its desktop ad sales have weakened. Sarah Tew/CNET

NEW YORK -- Now you are the emoji.

Yahoo on Wednesday unveiled a new video texting app, called Livetext, which the company hopes can revive its relevance for smartphone users. The twist for this service is that the videos don't have sound.

"We are here to inform, connect and entertain our users," Adam Cahan, a Yahoo senior vice president, said at a media event in Manhattan.

During a live demonstration, Arjun Sethi, a Yahoo senior director of product management, showed how he could jump on quick, live video calls with friends to text back and forth with them. Yet he could only see them but not talk directly to them.

Ideally, Yahoo executives hope the service can combine the spontaneity of texting with the contextual clues of facial expressions, but make the app more casual and easier to use anywhere -- from a noisy street to quiet library -- by stripping out the sound. If the app succeeds, it could go a long way in helping Yahoo expand in mobile and make up for flagging sales in its main business of selling display ads on desktop Web pages. It will be up to users to decide if such a messaging service fits well into their lives and can break through in a crowded field of video-chat and messaging apps including Snapchat, FaceTime, Whatsapp and Skype.

The app will have no time limit for texts and the conversations can't be archived by users, with the intent of making these messages quick and fleeting, similar in concept to messages on Snapchat and live-streams on Meerkat, which are both mobile apps that don't allow users to save content for later viewing. Messages can be sent like a regular text, without someone watching live on the other end, but those messages will be deleted when a user exits the app. To beef up privacy, the messages will be encrypted and Yahoo won't store their content.

Now Playing: Watch this: Meet Livetext, Yahoo's new answer to Snapchat (video)
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Despite its similarities to Snapchat, Cahan said Livetext wasn't meant as a competitor to that service.

"People use lots of different communication tools" for different reasons, he said, allowing for several of these apps to coexist.

The app will be available for free Thursday on phones running Google's Android and Apple's iOS operating systems in the US, Canada, UK, France and Germany, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it's available now.

The launch of Livetext means that Yahoo Messenger, the company's current messaging service on phones, will be de-emphasized so Yahoo can focus instead on its new app, Cahan said. He added that Yahoo Messenger will maintain its place as a program for desktops and laptops.

Yahoo over the past few years has worked to remake itself for the mobile era as more consumers have migrated to smartphones and tablets from PCs. Under CEO Marissa Mayer, who took over in 2012, the company has refreshed each one of the company's mobile properties -- from Yahoo Weather to Sports to its Flickr photo sharing service.

A sample screen of a Livetext conversation. Sarah Tew/CNET

But one area that has remained stagnant is the company's efforts around messaging apps. Earlier this month, the company released Livetext, though it only appeared in Apple's App Store in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yahoo Messenger, a once-popular desktop computer service, has languished while the company's fiercest competitors -- from Facebook to Google, as well as upstarts like Snapchat -- have beefed up their own offerings.

Yahoo has good reason for the push in mobile apps. The company's advertising sales are flagging, and its traditional money maker -- display, or banner, ads -- continues to fade. To combat that loss in business, Mayer has been focused on mobile, social, video and native ads instead. Since taking over at Yahoo, Mayer has bolstered the companies mobile engineering team through a series of acquisitions. Yahoo bought mobile messaging app MessageMe in October, helping it bring on Sethi and his team to help create Livetext.

Yahoo has gained critical acclaim for its mobile app overhauls -- it won back-to-back Apple design awards for its Weather and News Digest apps in 2013 and 2014. Still, Yahoo hasn't been able to score a big hit. In May, eight of the top 10 mobile apps were owned by either Facebook or Google, according to ComScore. Yahoo's apps didn't crack the top 15.