Yahoo Inc. has finally started to roll out new features designed to make its e-mail service more like the popular on line hangouts Facebook and MySpace, following through on a promise made nearly a year ago.
With the additions announced Monday, Yahoo's roughly 275 million e-mail users will have the option of setting up their accounts so they can highlight communications from other people with whom they have formed an on line connection.
The concept mirrors a premise that has turned privately held Facebook and News Corp.'s MySpace into two of the Web's hot spots for socializing over the past three years -- a period that has coincided with a wrenching downturn at Yahoo.
After registering their profiles on Facebook and MySpace, people can use the sites to form on line bonds with their friends and family so they can share personal information and keep track of each other's activities.
Yahoo also is copying Facebook and MySpace by opening its e-mail service to applications created by outside programmers. In a test that started Monday among a small number of e-mail users, Yahoo began offering applications developed for finding photos stored in their mailboxes, transferring information to blogs and sharing tips about movies.
The changes will turn Yahoo's e-mail service into a "scrapbook for your life," said John Kremer, a company vice president. "We hope opening up Yahoo mail will have a game-changing influence on the industry."
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang offered the first glimpse at the Sunnyvale-based company's broader e-mail ambitions during a presentation at a consumer electronics show held in January.
Introducing the changes took time because Yahoo wanted to ensure it got the technology right and hoped to minimize disruption for users, said Ash Patel, who heads up the company's products. "We are very deliberate in the way we roll things out," he said.
The e-mail overhaul took so long to complete that Yang is now on the way out as Yahoo's chief executive. With Yahoo's stock price and earnings eroding under his leadership, Yang plans to step down as soon as a new CEO is found.
Besides tweaking its e-mail service, Yahoo plans to upgrade its toolbar for Web browsers. The improvements include the ability to check new messages coming into Yahoo e-mail and competing services as well as to receive notifications about their on line connections' latest activities.
As it introduces new twists to its Web site, Yahoo also is planning to phase out less popular services as part of an effort to reduce its annual expenses by $400 million. Yahoo is reaping most of the savings by laying off 1,500 workers in a purge that began last week.
Patel on Monday declined to discuss which services Yahoo will eliminate, saying more information will be passed on next year.