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How Y!OS Unifies and Expands the Yahoo Ecosystem : Page 2

The Chief Architect of Platforms explains why Yahoo is opening itself up to developers and why you should want to build applications for them.

HW: Has there been any app developed yet with Y!OS that has impressed or technically surprised you guys?

NS: One of the most surprising things was how quickly existing applications could move onto the Yahoo network. We did our Hack Day event back in October. Developers could show up and write whatever they wanted. We had developers that came in and started from scratch. And we got 50 hacks together. The volume was great.

But the other interesting thing is that a lot of the commercial shops showed up and were able to port their existing applications so quickly and so readily. I think a lot of that comes down to us using, like I said before, OAuth and adhering to the open social stack for applications.

So that means stuff like Xanga, Xoopit, and so on can come in, and they can immediately have their applications running on the network. One of the things that we found has been great is the fact that existing applications can just be turned on without a second thought.

HW: But no one app created by a third-party developer has stood out for you?

NS: We're keeping it fairly quiet, especially with our partners. A lot of what we're doing is not to give folks a lead, but to help us hammer out deficiencies in the platform, identify weaknesses or ask for tweaks and improvements. So we're trying not to showcase particular developers until the application platform fully launches.

On the other hand, I can tell you some of the things that we've done internally. For example, we have a Flickr application that runs in Yahoo Mail or on the Yahoo front page. They're impressive in that they seamlessly integrate with the canvases, so it looks like it's part of the experience. Your photos, updates from your friends, those sort of things just show up right there on, otherwise, what used to be a relatively non-customized starting experience, and now it's really "your" Yahoo home page. So the ability for applications to just seamlessly integrate themselves has been one of the most impressive features.

HW: From the perspective of Yahoo.com and its other sites, what have been the technical challenges with Y!OS? I imagine that security is a big issue since you guys are essentially opening yourselves up to the online world.

NS: User trust has been really important. In rolling these things out, we let users know what they're getting into. I think we've made very conservative choices around privacy. Rather than taking a simple click-through that says "yes, I'm installing this application," we let users know exactly what information any particular application will have access to. What that does is it encourages developers not to ask for too much. If you ask for access to a user's address book, we let the user know. We let them know this developer is accessing potentially private information.

On the technical side, running someone else's code on your network is always a challenge, whether in your execution environment or whether that's allowing JavaScript on the user's browser. All of those are potentially dangerous propositions. We've invested a lot of time and energy in working against those particular risks, and in a very standardized way.

Take, for example, Caja, which stands for Capability JavaScript: it's an optional writer for the OpenSocial stack, developed at Google. We'll be the first network using it. It's a JavaScript "sanitizer" that allows you to deliver a safe subset of JavaScripts to the user's browser. That way they don't have to import third-party JavaScripts that could potentially do bad things... you know, cross-site scripting attacks, stealing your cookies, whatever.

So we've taken not only a rigorous messaging approach to the user, but we've done a lot technical work to make sure that third-party code can be executed and delivered safely.

HW: What new features or access are developers asking for the most in Y!OS?

NS: More than anything, developers are pushing us to accelerate our roll-out schedule. That more than particular features. They want access to particular canvases, the big ones. They want to get on Yahoo Mail; they want to get into Groups; they want to get onto the front page.

I think from a feature perspective, we're at parity or beyond what any of our competitors are offering. YQL, for example, is one of the cornerstones, where not only do we give developers access to all of the social API's, and all of the Yahoo open API's, but it also gives you access to just about anything else on the web through the way Pipes work.

I think the developers have been really appreciative of that—that we've acknowledged that the universe doesn't exist with just Yahoo data, that there's a lot more data out there on the internet, and it's not threatening to join those things together and to give developers access to both of those things simultaneously. So the biggest differentiator is that users are getting a super-set of what they would get anywhere else. Developers get pretty straightforward access to our API's.

HW: What new features are actually in the works for future Y!OS releases?

NS: Today is the big one. We're bringing in several new update streams: Yahoo TV, Yahoo Travel, Video will be now flowing onto the network. Their information will be distributed through our update stream. What that will do is allow users to see updates from themselves and their friends, and on profiles at Yahoo.com.

What that means is that users are going to be trained to understand and see these events as they flow through the network. That becomes something that the developer can leverage. When developers start using the updates stream to say how [your friend] installed the latest game and he would like to play with you, the users know how to interact and immediately install applications. All of the big canvases are attractive to developers, but getting our users use to it, getting them to understand the changes coming and how to interact with a new system, is also really important as well.

HW: Any final advice for developers who are just starting out with Y!OS, or are considering developing for it?

NS: My advice would be to start as early as possible, to really get a lead. We went out with what we call a preview release of our application platform, and the response was really great. We had hundreds of developers show up in the first couple weeks. And by the end of month, we had well over a thousand applications built. And these were folks just testing, sort of "kicking the tires," because there wasn't a home for those applications on the network.

Now, as we work through open mail, as we work through the front page project, the developers that have already used the API's, worked out the visual element, got everything ready to go, all we have to do is flip the switch and they can be running on these top Yahoo properties.

So my advice would be to just go ahead and get out there early and give it a shot. While you're there kicking the tires, we're open for feedback. So if there are things that developers want, changes that they would love to see, it's much easier to do them early. We can take the feedback very quickly at this point in time before we get deeply integrated to the network.

Howard Wen reports on development and technology for several sites and publications.
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