Walt Mossberg

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Personal Technology

Yahoo Email Delivers That Desktop Feel Most Users Expect

Web-based email programs, like Yahoo Mail, have long been inferior to email programs that take the form of standard applications installed on your computer. The Web offerings have been short on features, short on email storage and clumsy to use.

Lately, however, that has begun to change. A number of major Web-mail providers have introduced versions that offer much more of the ease of use and power of desktop email programs like Microsoft Outlook. Yet they still retain the core advantage of Web-mail services: They can be accessed from any computer, Windows or Mac, with your settings and preferences always present. All you need is an Internet connection and a Web browser.

Google kicked off the trend last year with Gmail, which for the first time offered to store, free, a huge volume of old email messages — 1 gigabyte, which was raised to 2 gigabytes or more. Other Web players boosted their free storage limits.

Now, the Web-mail competition has taken a new turn, going beyond storage. Yahoo, EarthLink and AOL all have recently introduced versions that lift their functionality well beyond the old model of Web mail. All are using new programming techniques that turn them from simple Web pages into something resembling the fluidity of desktop applications.

For instance, these new email offerings allow you to drag and drop items, and do most things without waiting for a Web page to refresh or a new page to open. That’s a big change from the old system, where any significant action was performed in circuitous ways and required the Web page containing the email program to tediously reload.

This is a major breakthrough, and one that will extend beyond Web mail. More Web sites will be revamped to look and work like regular desktop programs, hastening the day when most applications may reside online.

I’ve been comparing the new version of Yahoo Mail, which claims to be the leader in Web mail, with Gmail, the challenger Yahoo most fears. My verdict: The new Yahoo Mail is far superior to Gmail. Yahoo more closely matches the desktop experience most serious email users have come to expect. Gmail, by contrast, is quirky and limited. Its only advantage is its massive free storage, which exceeds what most people will ever need.

Both products are officially in “beta,” or test, status. Neither is easy to obtain and use. If you want a Gmail account, you have to be invited by an existing account holder, or go through an odd sign-up process using your cellphone. Yahoo’s new version, just a week old, is — for now — available only to Yahoo Mail account holders the company selected, though the user pool will be expanded later this fall.

The new Yahoo Mail retains the basic terms of the current version. You get 1 gigabyte of mail storage free of charge, and the program displays ads. For $20 a year, the storage doubles to 2 gigabytes, and the ads disappear.

The new version is radically easier to use. For example, there’s a preview pane, just as in desktop programs, that allows you to view the contents of an email without opening it. You can open multiple emails at once. You can drop messages into folders you create. You can right-click on various items to see short menus of useful tasks, like “add sender to address book.” You can delete multiple messages at once by selecting them and clicking on a trash-can icon.

By contrast, Gmail has none of these new, fluid, desktop-like features. You can’t scroll through all of your messages’ headers without loading a new Web page. And there’s no preview pane, only a feature that shows a snippet of the content of an email.

To delete groups of messages, you have to wait for multiple consecutive pages to load, showing new headers. You can’t drag and drop. And Gmail’s address book, unlike Yahoo’s, doesn’t allow you to collect contacts into group addresses.

But Gmail’s limitations go beyond this. On several key issues, Google’s engineers have decreed that familiar email practices are no longer useful, and have substituted approaches they prefer, arrogantly denying users any choice.

Gmail doesn’t allow folders, only color-coded labels, as an organizing technique. It forces you to view all of your email in groups of related messages called “conversations,” instead of viewing them individually as they arrive. Other email programs also allow such grouped views, but they permit users to choose. Not Gmail, where “option” is a term too rarely employed, except in reference to employee compensation. (Yahoo plans to add an optional grouped view soon.)

Similarly, Gmail forces you to view ads alongside your emails. Unlike Yahoo, it offers no paid option to avoid the ads.

I’m sure Gmail will get better and better, and will eventually adopt the new programming techniques that allow desktop-like ease of use. But I’m not sure Google’s arrogance will ever make room for user preferences on things like folders or ads, or how emails are grouped.

Yahoo’s new email program would blow Gmail away if it were widely released today. That’s partly due to its features, but also to its respect for user choice.