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Yahoo and Google race to rebuild sites, lure coders

Swarmed by start-ups, Yahoo is trying to steer its battleship in a more social direction, while Google is trying to expand beyond its search core.

Note: this story was updated at 12:34 p.m. PDT with analysis and information about Google.

It's like watching a race between two glaciers.

Yahoo and Google are undeniably the two biggest powers on the Internet, each with a vast number of features and users. Each is trying to remake itself during a time when faster-moving start-ups show how hard it is for a massive site to transform itself.

But change is indeed in the works, and given the companies' scale, it's profound for both companies and for millions of people using the Internet.

On Tuesday, Yahoo in effect released version 1.0 of its Yahoo Open Strategy (YOS), providing public access to programming interfaces that will let developers build applications on top of Yahoo sites and build Yahoo information in to their own. The beleaguered Internet pioneer is betting on strategy to increase the activity of existing Yahoo users and draw new users to the site.

The same day, Google added a new option to its Gmail service that can show a user's calendar, list the user's online Google Docs files, and add small Web applications called gadgets. It's a modest move, but it's a new indicator that Google is serious about expanding beyond its core search operation into an all-purpose Internet tool.

Google's move also shows that bonhomie notwithstanding, the two companies both are trying to become a foundation on which people rely for a much richer interaction with the Internet.

YOS 1.0

A key part of the Yahoo Open Strategy is making various Yahoo APIs (application programming interfaces) available that will let Yahoo and third-party programmers take advantage of all the existing social links between Yahoo users. That means a new level of interaction for Yahoo sites, third-party applications running on Yahoo, and third party-sites drawing on Yahoo data--once Yahoo members give their permission for each application.

This diagram shows various components developers can use to work with the Yahoo Open Strategy. Yahoo

An earlier step of the YOS 1.0 transition was the release of Yahoo's new Profiles site. Another is testing of a more personalized and customizable front page. And the upcoming version of Yahoo Messenger, currently in beta testing, can tune into the stream of updates from people's contacts.

YOS abilities will arrive in other Yahoo properties in coming months. One big one: Yahoo Mail, one of Yahoo's core applications, one of its most social, and one where people are often deeply engaged rather than just skimming the surface of the Net.

With YOS, Yahoo Mail will be able to house applications that dovetail with people's in-boxes--one contest winner being a tool that assembles all the photos a person sent or received into a photo album. Another, which Yahoo has shown off, can speed interactions with Netflix and expand them to include one's peers.

Details of the Yahoo Open Strategy interfaces are available at the Yahoo Developer Network site. That's also where programmers will need to sign up to participate, Yahoo said. The company plans a series of free workshops to introduce programmers to the technology. Yahoo announced details of the YOS features at its Yahoo Developer Network blog on Tuesday.

Google getting personal
Google doesn't have a grand name for its strategy, but it's nevertheless emerging. The company puts search at the core of its mission, and that's where the vast majority of its revenue comes from. But it's spending that money on efforts to become a much more versatile--and personal--online resource.

New Gmail Labs features bring Google Calendar and Google Docs views.
New Gmail Labs features bring Google Calendar and Google Docs views. Google

Gmail is gaining steadily in popularity for Web-based e-mail, though it doesn't match membership totals of the top services, Yahoo Mail and Microsoft's Hotmail.

Along with that are Google Calendars, the iGoogle customizable home page service, newly revamped, and Google Docs for online word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations.

iGoogle is the premier way to house applications at Google, but their arrival at Gmail is telling for two reasons. First, e-mail is a more naturally social activity, so it can make more contextual sense to build on people's contacts. Second, it shows the interface flexibility that Google built into its most recent Gmail overhaul.

That flexibility could be an important asset for the company--and on Tuesday, Google added another experimental option in the form of Labs for Google Apps, which brings some optional collaborative applications to organizations using Google's suite of online tools. These opt-in features can ease the arrival of new features.

The larger a company is, the harder it is to change a site. Even if a new design doesn't break, just retraining users can be a monumental task. It's one reason start-ups can be more adaptable; another is that early adopters who try the latest thing are more tolerant of change than the mainstream users who arrive in force on large-scale sites.

Yahoo and Google both have faced outrage about updates to some high-traffic properties. Google's approach to its e-mail service, though, is to add new features through Gmail Labs, which means people must specifically enable the choices themselves. That gives Google a more graceful way to test and phase in new features.

Some of those Google Labs features have been pretty trivial if not downright silly, but adding Calendars and Docs support helps Gmail grow beyond a communication hub into a general-purpose Google hub. At the same time, iGoogle is headed the same direction, with the ability to house applications for Gmail, calendars, and instant messaging.

Outside help
What's so different about the companies' current efforts to remake themselves is the involvement of others. The companies are opening up their Web sites to third-party programmers because they're trying to capitalize on others' work.

Conveniently for programmers, Yahoo and Google both support the OpenSocial standard for Web applications, which at least in theory should make it easier for third-party programmers to work with either company as well as with other allies such as MySpace. But the area is still immature

It's all cooperative, of course. An outside programmer can get exposure to huge numbers of users by riding Yahoo's or Google's coattails. Those outside programmers, if they do their jobs right, will help bring new uses, new users, and new activity to their hosts.

And, Yahoo and Google no doubt hope, speed up those glaciers.