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- From Four11 To Absolute Zero

When Yahoo bought the Four11 corporation for $94 million they got more than extensive databases - they got the most sophisticated webmail engine in the world. Now, years later, the screw-ups at Yahoo have managed to take this engine and almost completely ruin it.

Sabeer Bhatia had a great idea. So great that he dared not even breathe a word of it or think of it nine to five. Over a period of several months he and his partner Jack Smith courted over twenty venture capitalists seeking backing for another, almost completely irrelevant idea, in the hopes of finding the right parties to spring their fantastic plan on.

When they finally met Steve Jurvetson and pitched their databases it was of course no go - and Sabeer hadn't expected otherwise. And as he and his partner were casually making their way to the door and Jurvetson asked them equally casually, 'you guys don't have anything else, do you?' Sabeer knew in his gut that they'd found the right VC.

The rest is history - immortalising the concept of viral marketing, Jurvetson and Sabeer's newly formed company quickly made Hotmail one of the hottest things going on the web. So hot in fact that Microsoft was banging on their door almost from day one.

Microsoft understood instinctively the value of a leading webmail service like Hotmail at the epicentre of its operations, and began banging on Sabeer's door incessantly. Sabeer was close to giving in to lesser bids, but when he'd finally got the backing of all his principals to hold out until he and he alone decided enough was enough, the price began to skyrocket. Some say Microsoft would have paid up to one billion for Hotmail, but the reputed $400 million was certainly no drop in the ocean. And after the buy-out, Sabeer went back to work as usual, at Hotmail as well, only now Hotmail was a subsidiary of Microsoft Corporation.

Steve Jurvetson had another pitch up his sleeve by now - from that of the team behind Four11. Steve had learned to love Ultimate Frisbee during his days at Stanford and he immediately took to the playing style of Four11 founder duo Michael Santullo and Larry Drebes - so much so that he drew up their contract right at the playing field - and in October 1997 even this venture paid off handsomely, when Yahoo gave $94 million for the corporation.

Four11 was databases - phone numbers, addresses, look anyone up anywhere - but it was more. It was also a webmail service. It didn't have the saturation Hotmail had, but the engine itself was good - in fact it was easily the best in the world.

RocketMail was head and shoulders above the competition from the get-go. While Hotmail might prove adequate or even more attractive to the casual surfer/emailer, RocketMail was the one the sophisticated user chose. Working with frames one of the rare times frames are sensible, Rocket let you create and continually see a directory hierarchy on the left while you worked with actual documents on the right. And everywhere you went you found links to do exactly what you needed to do when you needed to do it.

RocketMail was very much a 'no frills' webmail service. You didn't have to wait ages for heavy graphics to load. The site used very little client-side logic, if at all. RocketMail was fast, and in a world of slow dialup connections where reliability was still a premium article, this was an indispensable bonus.

RocketMail was simply the serendipity of the convergence of all the right things and all the right people at exactly the right moment. The Four11 webmail engine was the kind of software you don't really want to peek too closely at: you want to stay far far away, for fear of disrupting the unique magic.

After the merger, RocketMail accounts were melded seamlessly into the new scheme of things. Yahoo let Rocket users keep their old RocketMail addresses, and Yahoo's webmail looked and acted almost the same as RocketMail, aside from the logos and the new colours. Rocket veterans could console themselves with the fact that their favourite webmail service was still being run by the same Four11 webmail engine.

2001 is the year now, it's almost 2002, and four years have gone by since that historic transition. And the face - and behaviour - of the Four11 webmail engine has changed dramatically. While other services go under, while chief competitor Hotmail suffers a rejuvenating facelift, Yahoo gets downright crummy. Advertising revenues are at rock bottom, and rather than flow with it and seek other sources of income as other services do, Yahoo seems hell bent on forcing its webmail users to click on the damn things. And as its users continue to be adamant, Yahoo gets more pissed off and increases the size of the ads - and even removes some of the famous Four11 functionality, all in an effort to get click-throughs.

Monsters is what Yahoo calls them - they average about 500 pixels wide by about 500 pixels high - and many of them are filed as Yahoo's special new brand of consumer intimidation. Yet savvy users, exposed to the increased commercialism of the web, have had no trouble navigating around them - until now. Where Yahoo got this crazy idea of theirs is anyone's guess, but some really radical die-hard over there seems to think that if you remove all of the other functionality that users normally click on, they'll be forced to click on the ads just to click on something, that users aren't really interested in tending to their email duties but just want to click click click. Wherever the idea came from, it's as insane as the current leadership in Yahoo's webmail service.

The obsequious links that made RocketMail so intuitive are gone. It's no longer possible to empty your trash from anywhere except the left navigational margin. You can't check POP mail from anywhere but the dedicated 'Options' page. As soon as a directory is emptied, all functionality in that directory ceases to exist. It's a taunt, pure plain and simple: 'Click on our goddamn links if you want your nice webmail service to return someday.' But users are hardly going to give into such tactics, and as Yahoo doesn't seem interested in behaving intelligently at this impasse, things are bound to get even worse - and even more obscene - before they, if ever, get any better.

Pondering an empty Yahoo webmail directory is an uplifting experience. The screw-up programmers resident there today, creating havoc with what once was the greatest webmail engine on earth, have left all the column sorting links in. You can click on Sender, Size, Date, and lots of other grand stuff - only trouble is, there's nothing there to sort. Yahoo's software bozos leave the option open anyhow - so big of them.

Connection resets and overrun buffers are the mainstay now. Click on anything and you're bound to see 'Page Cannot Be Displayed' or some JavaScript gibberish that overruns everything or just see your hourglass cursor quietly die. The code changes by the hour and it never gets better, it only gets consistently worse.

Need support? Answer to a question? Want to find out why Yahoo is fucking up yet again? Forget it. Yahoo doesn't open their portals to anyone, not even the press. By design, it is impossible to get a 'human' answer from anyone at Yahoo. Is Yahoo currently experiencing outages? Quite likely, as their service is lagging almost all of the time these days, returning to its RocketMail peak performance levels only in the wee hours, and only sporadically, and only if you're really in the luck. But can you find out? Will they say? Give it up.

Things are so tight at Yahoo that no one even knows what operating system they run - check Netcraft and see. No one knows. That's how tight it is.

July 2001 saw the onslaught of Code Red and Code Red II. Panic was everywhere. PepsiCo cleaned up. When the second attack was to take place, Yahoo's webmail service stood still for over twelve hours. Nothing got in, nothing got out. Were Ron Dick and company working in cahoots with Yahoo, on some sort of wacky lead that the origins of CR and CR2 were within? Was Yahoo reading every single piece of correspondence? No one will ever know. The official version is of course that nothing ever happened, yet at about 4AM the following morning the deluge began, the dam broke, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of email messages were let loose all at once.

Yahoo has come under a lot of criticism - for its suspect forum groups and for its incredibly lame Geocities as two examples - but perhaps the worst these uppity idiots have done over the years is take something that once was grand, once was gold, and turn it into something that even the demented know enough to shun. RocketMail was one of a kind, and it is no more. Yahoo Mail is also one of a kind - let's hope that it too will disappear into the past.

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