Yahoo’s ingenious plan to force users to switch to Gmail

Yahoo Mail blocked over Wi-Fi on Google Android smartphones

NOVEMBER 2010 UPDATE: Yahoo officials recently informed me that the problem described in this blog post has been fixed. I've tested it out and can report that it is now possible to access Yahoo Mail on Android phones connected to Wi-Fi networks, even while using the Droid's native e-mail application. The original blog post follows:

No matter where I go, I have two constant companions: my Motorola Droid smartphone and Yahoo Mail. I love them both, but they seem to hate each other.

I’ve been using Yahoo Mail since I was a freshman in college nearly half my life ago, and have never wanted to switch. The service rarely goes down, and my computer makes a cool little sound when I get a new e-mail, which for some reason meets my warped definition of the word "exciting."  

I’ve been using a Motorola Droid since I bought it a little more than a week ago, and it’s one of the most amazingly awesome devices I’ve ever owned. It’s basically an iPhone plus a physical keyboard, and it’s not on the AT&T network – you can’t possibly screw that up, can you?

Actually, yes you can. You do it by building an e-mail service that doesn’t work when the phone is connected to Wi-Fi. 

I bought my Motorola Droid last Monday, May 3, brought it home and immediately set up my Yahoo Mail account on the native e-mail application that comes with the Droid. The process was easy and e-mail worked very well on the Verizon 3G network. Then, I connected my Droid phone to the Wi-Fi network in my house, and all of a sudden Yahoo Mail stopped working. Sometimes I get a “connection error” message, and at other times there is no error message but the mail refuses to refresh.

So, Yahoo Mail works on the Droid when it’s connected to 3G only, but it doesn’t work at all when the phone is connected to 3G and Wi-Fi simultaneously. I like using Wi-Fi, so I spent a while searching Google to find a way to overcome this problem, and learned that users of multiple types of Android phones have experienced the same issue.

During the process of trying to discover a workaround I had this thought: “Why don’t I just switch to Gmail?" After all, Android phones always support Gmail.

That’s when it hit me: This must be Google’s nefarious plan to kill Yahoo Mail! Build a smartphone platform that will eventually defeat the iPhone and BlackBerry, offer only limited support for competing e-mail services and watch everyone switch to your own e-mail platform.

It makes sense in a conspiracy theory sort of way, and I was ready to write a blog post blasting Google, naturally with the title “Google’s nefarious plan to kill Yahoo Mail.”

The only problem is, I couldn’t find any evidence suggesting that Google is to blame. I haven’t found a definitive answer for the Wi-Fi e-mail problem, but as of now it seems more likely to me that Yahoo is at fault.

Since I’m a journalist, I went to work Tuesday, May 4 and started e-mailing the press contacts for all the vendors involved in this mess: Google, Yahoo, Verizon and Motorola. 

I’ve gotten nothing of substance on the record from any of these companies. 

But my understanding of what happens is as follows: Yahoo charges users $20 per year extra for POP or IMAP access, the Internet protocols for retrieving e-mail. When mobile phone users connect to Yahoo mail over a cellular network, such as Verizon’s, the IP address is whitelisted, allowing the connection. But the IP addresses on Wi-Fi networks do not get the same special treatment, so users accessing Yahoo over Wi-Fi get an error message instead of their mail.

This seems to make sense at first glance, but I’m not convinced this explanation tells the whole story. For example, I can connect to Yahoo Mail over Wi-Fi on my iPod Touch. Why would Wi-Fi on an iPod Touch (or iPhone) be any different than Wi-Fi on a Droid? 

Secondly, some commenters on a Google Android forum report not being able to access mail on Wi-Fi despite having paid for Yahoo Mail Plus. So I’m not about to pay $20 for something that has always been free. 

Motorola and Verizon do confirm the Yahoo Mail/Wi-Fi problem, even though they won’t explain why it exists.

The user guide for the Motorola Devour phone, another Verizon device, states “While you are using a Wi-Fi network, you cannot access Yahoo Mail accounts. You can still use your browser to see these accounts at” 

When I contacted Verizon Wireless and described the Wi-Fi problem, and told them my understanding of what causes it, the Verizon spokeswoman responded that “the issue you describe regarding Yahoo is being addressed by Yahoo.” 

Now, it’s not like this Yahoo Mail glitch is the end of the world. I’d like to access the Wi-Fi networks at my home and elsewhere because they’re probably faster than Verizon’s 3G, but turning Wi-Fi off isn’t a huge deal. Even with Wi-Fi on, I can access Yahoo Mail with the Android Web browser, albeit through a harder-to-use interface than the dedicated e-mail client.

But the fact that this glitch had me briefly considering whether to switch to Gmail, after a lifetime using Yahoo, makes me wonder if such an inconvenience will harm Yahoo’s standing in the market for e-mail users.

Android phone sales have already surpassed iPhone sales. If millions of smartphone users have Google devices in their pockets, setting up a Gmail account would be a natural move, particularly if accessing Yahoo is more difficult than it should be.

Yahoo spokespeople have been blaming Google for problems with Yahoo Mail on Droid phones since at least January, when a spokesperson was quoted as saying "It's unfortunate that Google launched a mobile device without properly integrating e-mail from Yahoo! - the number one mobile mail service in the United States.”

But Yahoo is unwilling or unable to discuss the technical details behind the Droid glitch. I e-mailed Yahoo more than a week ago, received no response, left a phone message, again receiving no response, and then finally obtained an official statement from the company after placing another phone call with Yahoo yesterday.

“We are committed to offering a great Yahoo! Mail experience on Android powered devices and have been working with Google and individual carriers to make this happen,” Yahoo’s statement reads. “Based on the work we’ve done we expected this issue would have been resolved by now. Yahoo! Mail runs seamlessly on a wide range of operating systems and devices, including iPhone and BlackBerry, and we are doing everything within our direct control to provide our millions of Yahoo! Mail users the best possible experience on Android too.”

That statement doesn’t clear up the matter at all, and one of the reasons I am inclined to blame Yahoo is that anyone with the proper expertise can build an e-mail application and offer it to Android phone users through the Android app store.

That’s exactly what some developers have already done. One free app called MailDroid, which I have downloaded, works with Yahoo Mail over Wi-Fi. It’s not quite as good as the Droid’s native e-mail client, but what’s stopping Yahoo from building its own e-mail application for the Android? 

The Droid already has a separate application for Gmail, and could have one for Yahoo as well. I am not a technical expert, but I have to assume building a dedicated e-mail application for a widely used mobile operating system would be a trivial task for a company with the intellectual power of Yahoo. It’s not as ideal as having Yahoo Mail work with the native Droid e-mail app, but if it’s the only option, then just get it done, already. 

I’m keeping my Droid. I like it too much, and turning off Wi-Fi doesn’t severely hamper my enjoyment of the phone. Maybe Google should take some blame in the matter. After all, Google did build the operating system. But Yahoo officials are the ones with the incentive to fix the problem. What the heck are they waiting for?

(July 1 Update: Yahoo releases Android mail app to support Wi-Fi, but service is slow)

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.