Axis: Enough To Make Yahoo A Contender Again?

Yahoo hopes new Axis mobile browser will help the company regain some of its search ad business glory.
Despite its recent management turmoil and its focus on media and social interaction, Yahoo still wants to be relevant as a technology company. Following up on the April release of its open-source Mojito JavaScript framework for Web apps, the company on Wednesday unveiled an even more ambitious project: Yahoo Axis, an iOS mobile browser and plug-in for major desktop browsers.

Yahoo isn't going quite as far as Google did when it launched Chrome in 2008. Axis relies on the WebKit rendering engine on iOS, as required by Apple's developer rules, so it's more like other iOS browsers--Atomic, Mercury, and Skyfire, for example--than mobile Safari, Firefox for Android, or Chrome for Android. An Android version of Axis is still under development.

The plug-in version of Axis is even less of a browser. Really, it's a visually-oriented search interface.

[ Are there patents involved in this stuff? Read Google Beats Oracle Patent Claim. ]

But Yahoo isn't fighting the browser wars. It's fighting to hold on to its search ad business, which remains a significant source of revenue for the company.

"Axis is the first of its kind to challenge the status quo of the typical search and browse experience; a results page, ten blue links, clicking back and forth between links and the results page, the need to start over when you move to another device," explains Ethan Batraski, head of product for Yahoo's search innovation group, in a blog post. "With Axis, never again will you have to stop what you are doing to enter a search and go to a search results page--search is now transformed into a true companion, not a destination."

That's something of an exaggeration: You still have to enter text into a search box to submit a query, though the inclusion of query auto-completion accelerates the transition from searching to scanning Web page thumbnails. The primary virtue of Axis, as Yahoo sees it, is that it can "unify searching and browsing."

Axis does away with the traditional text-based search results page, the listing of Web page links returned when a query is entered. But doing away with the search results page also does away with search ads. Look for Yahoo to fill this void at some later date if enough people use Axis to make ad placement pay off.

Search results in Axis are images of relevant websites, at least for popular search terms of the moment like "Diablo 3" or "Prometheus." Search results for more obscure terms--the names of non-celebrities, for example--are likely to be text, presumably because Yahoo hasn't cached the associated websites and can't immediately return mobile-optimized snapshots.

The most appealing aspect of Axis on iOS is the swipe-based navigation. With a swipe gesture, you can scroll through a series of Web page images fairly quickly. It's a more fluid navigational convention than switching Web page tabs in mobile Safari.

In some ways, Axis is comparable to Firefox Home, Mozilla's mobile bookmark sync app for iOS. Axis includes a personalized home page that spans both mobile and plug-in implementations.

"Axis offers a fundamentally new and dramatically different experience that we think will change the game," says Batraski.

If it doesn't quite manage that, Axis is still an interesting alternative search interface.

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