Yahoo Plans to Launch a Mail App Platform

1Yahoo, the beleaguered web giant, is planning to launch a new program that essentially turns its email offering into a platform on which to run applications, much in the same way Facebook does, according to some of my sources. Yahoo (s yhoo) is keeping a tight lid on its plans, but I’ve managed to gather some interesting details.

The program is expected to launch in beta relatively soon with half a dozen small applications running in a sidebar inside the Yahoo mail client (Evite is one of the services that is said to be building a nano-app for this new Yahoo Mail-as-a-platform). Users’ address books would act as a social graph, essentially turning Yahoo Mail into the basis of a whole new social networking experience.

Last fall, I pointed out that the only way for Yahoo or Google (s goog) to challenge the social networking incumbents like Facebook was to leverage their email infrastructure. Using email to build social experiences was first figured out by startups such as Xobni and my personal favorite, Xoopit. With relationship buckets pre-defined by the address book, which contains everything from web-based addresses to geo-local data (physical address) to mobile numbers, email clients are already rich with the very data set that Facebook is so desperately trying to build — and hoard.

In November 2007, a senior executive at Yahoo told The New York Times about the company’s plans to use email as the starting point of a social experience, dubbing it “Inbox 2.0.” “There will be some sort of profile system attached to Inbox 2.0,” said Brad Garlinghouse, who was at the time running Yahoo’s communications business. He went on to add, “The profile page is where you can expose what you want people to know about you.”

Garlinghouse, well known for writing the so-called “Peanut Butter Manifesto,” has since left the company, but Yahoo has been building on the Inbox 2.0 idea, most recently launching such a profile effort as part of its Yahoo Open strategy. The launch of the Mail-as-a-platform would help the company fully realize its Inbox 2.0 vision.

With its more than 200 million email subscribers, Yahoo has an unique opportunity with this platform. In particular, it plays to Yahoo’s strength in making complex technologies simple for a mass market audience, a trick Google is still struggling to master.

Of course, its success will depends on a number of things, such as developers feeling comfortable enough with Yahoo’s migraine-inducing policies and inspired enough to come up with applications that are useful — and don’t involve vampire bites and throwing virtual snowballs.

Yahoo also has to overcome its own culture of consensus (or confusion). If it does, this could be the start of a long climb back for a company that is currently viewed as a laggard.