Looking good: Yahoo's mobile makeover

Yahoo condenses its mobile-application efforts into one unified look for the iPhone and Web, and announces a Java app that's in the works and close to being done.

Careful, Yahoo Mobile for Web can grow longer than your arm.

Yahoo let loose at CTIA 2009 with a redesigned Yahoo Mobile experience for the Web and iPhone--available beginning Wednesday--and a sneak peek at a version for Java smartphones.

Yahoo has combined all the organizational elements it has been working on separately during the past year and a half or so to bring OneSearch, OnePlace, and OneConnect together in a single application. It's a throwback to Yahoo's beginnings as an Internet portal, but with a twist--and it works, though not without drawbacks.

Most intriguing is Yahoo's completely divergent similar experiences for the Web and iPhone versus the build for Java smartphones. The former invoke a classic Yahoo design, and the latter splinters off into widget land with a brand-new dashboard. Read below for the full details, or check out photos in our gallery: Yahoo Mobile steps into the light.

Yahoo Mobile's Web makeover
Yahoo's completely redesigned mobile hub on the Web is a tall, scrollable mashup of search, news, e-mail, social networking, finance, weather, sports scores, and any other RSS feed you'd want to add. At the very top is Yahoo OneSearch, which keys in your location using GPS or cell tower triangulation to make your text searches start faster. Below the search bar is a condensed feature section (Today on Yahoo) that emphasizes images.

Below that is an option to expand all Yahoo services, which gives you a portal-style list of everything from the Yahoo calendar to Flickr to movie showtimes. Back in the main screen, Yahoo OneConnect lets you add Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, and AOL e-mail in-boxes, Facebook and Twitter feeds, instant-messaging applications, and Yahoo's calendar and address book.

Further south, the area for Yahoo OnePlace will let you monitor RSS feeds for weather, finance, stocks, bookmarks, sports scores, and any other RSS link you'd like to add.

Now here's the bad part: Yahoo Mobile is infinitely customizable, which means that it's infinitely scrollable--the more services you add, the taller the app. While this is less of a problem on the iPhone, whose finger-flicking navigation rapidly scrolls up and down, it will take more time (and patience) on other devices. Although you can easily edit each section, the link to manage accounts from within each silo can easily get lost.

The ability to flip between screens for these various functions makes the iPhone app smoother and less cluttered, though the individual pages can still get long if you add numerous RSS feeds.

Trying to be too many things to too many people has been Yahoo's Achilles' heel for a long time, beginning with the Yahoo Go application that, though excellent and thorough, took too many brain cells for unfettered use.

The theme continued with Yahoo's series of separate apps for different mobile platforms that felt more like experiments than a mobile solution--Yahoo OneSearch with voice, OnePlace, and OneConnect. The retooled Yahoo Mobile unifies them all in a good-looking, intuitive structure whose whole is worth far more than the sum of its parts, even if it has the potential for creating a foot-long application.

Yahoo Mobile for Java phones
Yahoo's new native application for Java phones may be the same genus as the Web portal, but it's a completely different beast. Yahoo Mobile for smartphones has a few more enhancements, including voice search (powered by Vlingo) and an underlying Opera Mini browser. (See an image in our gallery.)

The app will take on a dashboard feel, with the search bar on top and widgets tiled below. The widgets will include services like Facebook and a socially intelligent address book that integrates e-mail history, SMS, IM, and calling.

There will also be a mapping app, and plenty of ways to personalize by adding your own widgets. It certainly looked easy to use when we played with in during our demo, but the one question in our minds is whether people will want a second dashboard on their phones to access their contacts, calendars, social networks, e-mail, and so on.

Answers to these questions will become clearer when Yahoo Mobile for Smartphones becomes available sometime in May.