Yahoo Mail drops passwords and adds third-party email support for new apps

It's Yahoo Mail's 18th birthday this month and to mark the occasion, Yahoo is pulling out all the stops with three major announcements: a brand new mobile app for Android and iOS, the support for multiple third-party email accounts and, perhaps most significantly, the introduction of a completely password-free sign-in experience called Yahoo Account Key.

Before we get into the app, let's lead with the two big announcements. Back in March, Yahoo Mail introduced something called On-Demand Passwords that basically sent a one-time password directly to your phone so you could log in to your email account. Now, they've done one better: Yahoo Mail wants you to forget about passwords altogether with a feature called Yahoo Account Key. You'll need a smartphone and the Yahoo Mail app for this, because basically what you're doing is tying your email address to your phone number and the app. Enable Yahoo Account Key in settings, and voila, you won't ever need to enter in your password again.

Here's how it works. When you go to login to your Yahoo Mail account, you'll enter in your email address. And then when you click on the password field, the field will disappear. Instead, you'll get a push notification on your phone asking whether to accept or deny the login request. Hit accept, and you're in; it's as simple as that. "Account Key is a metaphor for how a user will verify their identity," says Dylan Casey, Vice President of Product Management for Yahoo, adding that eventually this authentication method can be expanded to include biometrics like fingerprints and face recognition.

Of course, there are a few downsides. For one thing, you'll need a smartphone to use it, as it needs that app for verification. And if you lose your phone for whatever reason, you'll have to authenticate via a secondary email address, which isn't ideal. Thankfully, Yahoo Account Key is entirely opt-in and you don't need to use it. But for everyday use with a vast majority of Yahoo Mail users, Account Key could be the perfect solution for increased security.

"Email accidentally inherits the weaknessses of other password systems on the internet," explains Jeff Bonforte, Yahoo's Senior Vice President of Communications Products. "Our users are too often using the same password or service that they're maybe not thinking too much about." He adds that while two-factor authentication is the current standard for security, less than 10 percent of Yahoo Mail users are currently using it. It's often too complicated for most people, he says. "You can always get immense level of password security but you can't get an immense level of password security that's simple and intuitive."

The second big piece of news is that Yahoo Mail will now officially support third-party email accounts. So if you want, you can now add Outlook, Hotmail and AOL email accounts to your Yahoo Mail app. You can send and receive email from those accounts and search through them just like you can with your Yahoo Mail. It doesn't just fetch the top 200 messages from the account either -- it'll be able to have access to the entire mailbox and its entire archive; photos, documents and all. "It's all done and synced server-side," explains Bonforte. "It's comprehensive and non-destructive."

"In this way, we can provide a consistent experience across all mailboxes," says Shiv Shankar, a Senior Product Manager for Yahoo. There are a number of other advantages too. You can set up all your third-party accounts in Yahoo Mail on the desktop, for example, and it'll sync to all your devices automatically so you don't have to add them all over again on your phone. Search and contacts will be unified across all accounts, and anything and everything you can do with Yahoo Mail can also be applied to your third-party mail accounts (More on Yahoo Mail's new smart search abilities below).

The big question here is: will you be able to add Gmail to Yahoo Mail? The answer: "We're working on it," says Bonforte. The same answer also applies to corporate Outlook and Microsoft Exchange accounts.

Now on to the app, which has been completely reimagined to not only be faster and easier to use, but also prettier as well. The first thing you'll notice when you open your inbox, for example, is that people are front and center. "We're the only mail provider out there that allows you to connect your Yahoo account to social accounts like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter," says Fernando Delgado, a Senior Director of Product Management for Yahoo Mail. That means that whenever possible, Yahoo Mail will pull in the photos or avatars for each of your contacts based on the social account that's tied to their email address.

But if the sender doesn't have an account on any of those services? Then instead of generic grayed out avatars, you'll see the sender's initials cropped out of a photo plucked from a library of Flickr images. "We wanted something rich and beautiful even for the boring stuff," says Bonforte. "We want the inbox to look consistently gorgeous."

Another neat trick is that whenever you get an email from a company like Bank of America or CVS, you'll often see their logo next to the email. Interestingly, that logo is also a security feature. "When we show a logo, it's like showing a signature of the sender," says Bonforte. That's because Yahoo Mail only shows the logo of the company if the email has been officially signed and verified -- it can 100% guarantee that the company has sent it. This, Bonforte says, is a result of a DMARC email security feature Yahoo Mail has implemented awhile ago that ensures that messages are only delivered when the service is absolutely certain the sender is who they say they are.

There are other UI improvements too: swiping right lets you mark a message read or unread, swiping left removes it, a long press lets you select multiple messages plus there's a handy undo button at the bottom if you mess up. As for conversation threads, Yahoo Mail respects the different ways they're traditionally handled in the default Android and iOS Mail apps -- for iOS for example, you'd swipe left to right to toggle through messages, while for Android, you'd swipe vertically. And hey, if you'd rather look at Yahoo News instead, there's also easy access to it at the top right corner.

Even better than looks however, is Yahoo Mail's new smarts. Take the new contacts card, for example. When you tap on a person's photo, you'll immediately see their contact details even if he or she is not in your local address book. That's because they're all automatically culled from their connected Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles, and even from their email signatures if they contain alternate email addresses or phone numbers. The contacts card also helpfully shows the history of email exchanges between the two of you and a list of what it thinks are related contacts (perhaps mutual friends or co-workers). The latter, Delgado says, is especially helpful if you're trying to remember who the person is and how you met them.

More powerful than that is Yahoo Mail's brand new contextual smart search engine. Type in the first letters of someone's name, and it'll instantly suggest the most likely contact. For example, say you entered in your co-worker's name in the recipient field and then proceeded to type in a couple more letters. It'll automatically suggest the name of other co-workers you've usually emailed together -- a feature that's been on Gmail for awhile now. What's impressive with Yahoo Mail's version though, is that it's even more contextual than that. Say you typed in your co-worker's personal email address instead because you want to organize a non-work-related movie night. The next couple of letters will bring up a list of people with personal email addresses rather than their work address. "If the user has to type in more than a couple characters, we haven't done our job," says Bonforte. "It's these little things that when users get used to them, they sort of feel blind without them."

Ah, but that's not all. Say you're doing a search for messages from a particular friend. While traditional mail clients typically only fetch what's locally on the device or the top 100 or so messages on the server, Yahoo Mail will search your entire inbox even from months or years ago. And yes, it'll search through all those multiple third-party accounts too. That's because the search is server-side powered, not client-side. It's not just messages either; you'll be able to see all the images and files your friend has ever sent you, and all the images and files that you've ever sent to them.

"We think we have the most advanced search in a mobile email client out there," says Delgado. "We truly understand the structure of the messages, the files and the photos that are in your inbox."

There are a few other neat features with composing new messages. You can easily include multiple photos from your camera roll to a single message and get them to render in line by default, or you can attach them like traditional attachments by hitting the plus sign at the bottom. For the Android app, you can also browse your phone's system folders or your SD card to find the file or image you want to attach. But what's particularly powerful here is that because Yahoo Mail indexes every single message that you've ever received or sent, you can also easily search for and attach any photo you've received without having to download it and attach it -- all attachments are done server-side, even if it's an 80MB file.

If you often use your email to send yourself reminders, you can simply long-press the compose button and your own email address will automatically appear in the To field and the cursor will be the subject line. Type the note, hit send and you'll get those reminders. "About 20 percent of our users frequently email themselves," says Bonforte. "It's also aware of all your email addresses ... emailing yourself from any one of the accounts will be considered an email to yourself."

And if you have the new iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, you'll be able to 3D Touch the app icon to "peek" into the app and compose a new message, send a note to yourself, conduct a search or go straight into the inbox. For those with iOS9, you'll be able to search for anyone on Yahoo Mail right from Spotlight. Tap on any of the Spotlight results, and it'll switch to the app and email message in question.

Of course, Yahoo Mail has a steep hill to climb in order to defeat the juggernaut that is Gmail, but with innovations like Account Key, the willingness to support multiple third-party accounts, and its huge server-side Smart search chops, the new Yahoo Mail is certainly worth a look. The new app should be available on both Android and iOS today, while you're able to add Account Key to your account starting today as well.