Within the last day, Yahoo has officially released the web service API for mail they demo'd at Hack Day last year. Earlier in the week, mailbox storage limits were removed. Everyone seems to be cheering, and talking about the obligatory Flickr mashup.
Before we get too drunk on champagne, let's take a look at the details. The API only allows retrieval of the mail message body for Yahoo Mail premium subscribers. This correlates to their policy of allowing POP/IMAP access only for premium subscribers too. They are missing the whole point of an open API here. There's only so much I can build if I know that Yahoo mail basic users (i.e., most people) will have degraded functionality.
The Yahoo motivation is, of course, to drive people to the web site to get their mail, where they can be exposed to ads, which keep Yahoo in business providing free mail. Ok, cool. But why not use this opportunity to explore some alternatives that keep the revenue coming, but allow Yahoo to really open the data service up, instead of having this silly $20 tax (i.e. "premium") on people too lazy to switch to a more open free service? (User inertia is a dangerous business model because it exhibits "tipping point behavior" -- one day, everyone's too lazy to switch and the next day all your best users are gone.)
So what are the more imaginative approaches Yahoo could have taken? Well, for one thing they could continue to insert text ads, or even image ads into mail sent or retrieved. They could specify terms of service that require another app (say a mail client or another web site) to display certain ad items when using Y! Mail content, or else risk losing developer key access.
They could innovate further by creating a loyalty program across Yahoo properties that informs whether a user gets certain service levels: for example, if I have lots of My Yahoo page views, or I click a lot of ads there, or I buy a ton of stuff from Yahoo Stores businesses, shouldn't that count for something? Certainly this sort of user is different from a freeloader who hypothetically never views a Yahoo web page, and just sucks his mail down into Outlook. How about if I have a full demographic profile in Yahoo, and I leave myself logged in with a persistent cookie, and I use Yahoo search a bunch ... thereby providing Yahoo a wealth of data that should raise the value of ads shown to me?
C'mon guys ... if you don't do it, someone else will.