Yahoo wants to kill passwords with revamped Mail app

The Internet giant is trying to get more people to use its email service. In the process it also wants to rid the world of passwords.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read

One new Yahoo Mail feature lets you sign in without a password. Yahoo

Yahoo thinks it can make your password a thing of the past.

The Sunnyvale, California-based Internet giant unveiled new features Thursday, including one that enables people to log in to their email accounts without a password. You go to mail.yahoo.com, enter your user name and press "continue." That's where everything changes.

Instead of entering an annoyingly complex or easy-to-crack password, the company sends an alert to your smartphone and asks if you'd like to sign in. Hit "yes," and presto.

It's part of a larger effort to revamp the Internet giant's email service into something so compelling and easy to use that it stands out among other email services like Google's Gmail and Microsoft's Outlook. Yahoo mail, which was once considered cool, has grown passe over the years. In Silicon Valley at least, Gmail is now considered cool.

"We're going to kill passwords altogether," Dylan Casey, Yahoo's vice president of product management, said at a press event in San Francisco on Wednesday.

If Yahoo's tech catches on, it means consumers could eventually live in a world without having to remember passwords. That's a big deal because most security experts agree passwords in general are unsafe. What's more, it doesn't even matter if you are logging into a secure website.

High-profile hacks at places including Sony Pictures, the Internal Revenue Service and extramarital-dating website Ashley Madison have brought a lot of attention to people's digital vulnerability. One of the problems is too many people use an easy-to-guess password or the same one for multiple sites. The result is that if a hacker breaks into one site, it could mean trouble for the rest of your online life.

A 'far superior' way

This isn't Yahoo's first push to end passwords. The company in March released a feature called On-Demand passwords, which lets people sign into their Yahoo accounts with temporary passwords the company texts to users' phones. It's Yahoo's take on a common process for logging into websites called two-factor authentication, where you first enter your own password, then enter a second password the company sends to your phone. Many popular services, including Gmail, do this. Think of Yahoo's process as two-factor authentication, minus the first factor.

But only 3 percent or 4 percent of Yahoo's 225 million monthly active users implemented On-Demand passwords, Casey said. Yahoo's new tool, called Account Key, is "far superior," to On-Demand passwords, said Jeff Bonforte, senior vice president of communication products. He said Yahoo will eventually shut down On-Demand passwords and move people to the new feature.

Yahoo Mail is one of the company's most important products. Yahoo

To use the tool, you log in to your email with your regular password, turn on Account Key, and register your phone. The catch, of course, is you must own a smartphone and be willing to give your phone number to Yahoo. Bonforte said more than 90 percent of Yahoo Mail users in the US have smartphones, and the majority of users access their mail through their phones.

If people lose their phones or their battery dies, they can still log in using traditional passwords or through email. The tool is available for Yahoo Mail and Sports but will expand to the company's other services later, a company spokesman said.

A wider reach

For Yahoo, attracting more people to its email service is critical as CEO Marissa Mayer tries to turn the company around. Since she took the helm of the once-proud Internet pioneer three years ago, she's tried to pull the company into the era of smartphones and tablets. She's revamped each of the company's mobile properties, from Yahoo Weather to Finance, but she still faces flagging revenue and increasing impatience from investors.

"Basically, what they need is a killer product. They need something," said Sameet Sinha, an analyst with the investment bank B. Riley and Co. "Google has search. What does Yahoo have?"

Yahoo hopes the new version of Mail can fill that void. The company also announced other new features for the service, including allowing people to import outside email accounts such as Outlook.com, AOL and Hotmail. Gmail is not included, though the company is "working on it," Bonforte said. You can also look at attachments side by side with messages, among other things.

The company said it made its email search tool more powerful so you can more easily see older emails while on the service's mobile app. The iPhone version of the app will be compatible with 3D Touch, a new software feature Apple designed for the new iPhone 6S that lets people navigate through apps differently.

The changes are an attempt to improve a crucial part of Yahoo's business, Bonforte said. "Yahoo Mail has always been the center of what Yahoo is," he said. "The success of the product is very important to the success of the company."