It's no secret that Yahoo has been falling behind in the Web search game. So it comes as a welcome surprise that the company has come out with a real innovation in the genre. Yahoo Axis' main mission is to change search from a destination page that yields yet another page of 10 blue links, to a browser companion that makes search part of your Web experience. The idea is to go from query directly to results, without the intervening page that lists a choice of links.
Axis takes the form of free mobile apps (iPad and iPhone now, Android later) that themselves double as browsers, and browser plugins for today's popular Web navigating software. Besides fast access to result pages, another Axis fundamental is that all your devices and computers are synced, in terms of bookmarks and recent searches, if you choose to sign in. In particular, the mobile app makes intuitive use of touch gestures, while the browser plugins have their own HTML5 slickness, and mostly stay out of the way.
Soon after its release, Yahoo Axis was already in the number-two spot of the iTunes App Store's top free downloads. The small 3.7MB download installs faster than most iOS apps. Since anything on the Web could show up in the app, iOS first displays its obligatory "Mature content" warning before you install it. The next notification during install asks if you'll allow push notifications, and then you finally OK the lengthy but standard terms of service.
The Axis iPad app functions as a full Web browser, using Safari's underlying page-rendering engine (as all iOS browsers must). It starts you out with three clear, simple overlay instructions in a fun handwriting font, explaining its sparse, all-black interface. As in every browser, there's a search bar at the top. To see results, you swipe your finger down on the screen, and thirdly, you're instructed to sign in using a Yahoo, Facebook, or Google account.
I did run into a glitch where the sign-in box changed into the iPhone-size Yahoo search app when I tried signing in with a Google ID. Facebook and Yahoo sign-in worked without incident. Another notification box appeared, disclosing that Yahoo would store my bookmarks and the application's most recent state, so that I could pick up where I left off on another device.
Next to the search bar are six buttons - back and forward arrows, a sharing button, bookmark page button (star), a Yahoo logo link, and a bookmark manager button (the ribbon icon). The latter can also take you to your homepage, which shows three sections - Read Later, My Favorites, and Continue from device. You can re-arrange the first two, while the Continue section stays put.
Once you click in the search box, Axis' theme of trying to simply show you results immediately kicks in. A dropdown shows trending searches, and tapping any of these opens a flyout box with nutshell info on the topic. For example, when I was testing, Zachary Quinto was trending. The flyout offered a photo, movie trailers from his popular movies (Star Trek and Down with Love), and the latest news on him. But the best part came when I looked to the right of this info box. Thumbnails showing the most likely page results for Zachary Quinto - his own homepage, Wikipedia, and IMDB. I could simply swipe left to see all the page results, and click on one to see it fill the screen. It's a supremely intuitive experience.
Even after you've full-screened your chosen result, you can swipe in from the right to go to the next result site, or from the left to get to the previous. And dragging down anywhere on the page drops the thumbnail results back down from the top. You have to keep in mind the difference between this last action and swiping down from the very top of the iPad screen, which shows iOS notifications. Trying this gesture also occasionally opened a link on the page at hand rather than getting me to the Axis list.
I was able to get stock quotes when entering a symbol, but typing ‘weather' didn't bring up a quick look at my local forecast, as I'd expected it to.
Settings in the app are few. You get to log out, choose to view a page formatted for iPad, Desktop, or iPhone, and to switch to a Local Only mode. The latter is a good choice for when you don't want your search history synced with Yahoo Axis on your other computers or devices.
You can add your own new bookmark sections to the pre-existing ones, My Favorites, and Read Later. Since newly added bookmarks appear at the end, I appreciated how the Axis app let me press and hold a bookmark to move it anywhere in the list. It's an action that any iOS user is familiar with from the way app icons themselves work.
Unlike the built-in Safari tabs, which mimic those of desktop browsers' across the top, Axis' are large thumbnail previews of the pages in the tabs along the bottom. You see an icon of overlapping pages with a number, flanked by the word ‘Tabs' at bottom right of the screen, so there's no mistaking how to access them. The first thumbnail is empty, with a plus sign, which obviously lets you create a new tab.
I had less luck on the iPhone than on the iPad. Though the interface was well-fitted to the smaller screen, my result pages were all dark, with buttons for Web and Images. Some page text was jumbled, too, in this initial view. Once I did get a result page displaying, however, the swiping back and forth among results worked well.
To get the browser plugin version of Axis, you head to axis.yahoo.com and click the big yellow ‘Get it Now! Desktop' button. The plugin works with HTML5-compliant browsers Internet Explorer 9, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. The Chrome version had a glitch at launch, and an update for that along with an Opera version are on the way, according to Yahoo. Firefox showed me nearly the same home screen I saw on the iPad after installation. The main difference was that the search bar was in the bottom rather than at top.
In a nifty HTML5 trick, when you simply hover the mouse over the search bar, it expands and more Axis buttons appear. This can be a little distracting if you move your mouse down while reading a page with no intention of searching. I do like, however, that when you click the bar's bookmark button, your page stays in place with the favourite sites overlay across the bottom. One problem with the desktop search bar, though, is that the last text you entered remains; you have to backspace or double-click to clear it. Built-in browser search boxes just let you start typing a new query without this step.
Unlike the iPad app, the browser plugin does have a home button, which brought up the now familiar three-section view with its black background. When I clicked on Continue from Device's iPad tile, the Zachary Quinto page loaded immediately. Axis preloads the page, so there's less waiting than for a typical webpage load.
Instead of the swipe gestures to go forward and back between search-result pages, overlaid arrows appear on the right and left edges of the page. For one iPhone search, I continued on the desktop, these back and forward buttons appeared in IE but not in Firefox, so some consistency work is needed between plugins. The arrows also occasionally took longer than I'd like to appear, and sometimes didn't show up at all. It's clear that the desktop plugins are a secondary consideration for Yahoo, as the company itself admitted. Does Yahoo need to build its own Web browser? Another difference from the app is that you don't get the latter's tab feature, since your browser will already handle that function.
As mentioned above, a key function of Axis aside from searching and bookmarking is its ability to synchronise what you're doing on your iPad, say, with your desktop and iPhone. I was surprised, however, to find out that not only were my searches and bookmarks synced, but any page I was browsing on my computer, while the plugin was running, would show up in my Axis's Continue from Device. This could be either super handy or disconcerting. Another aspect of sync is that you only get one entry for each device. That probably makes sense, since it would be burdensome for both you and Yahoo to save the whole browsing history on all devices and sync them to all the rest.
The Axis apps, but not the desktop browser plugins, let you share the page you're on to email, Pinterest, and Twitter. Of course, the glaring omission here is Facebook, which thousands of other apps have managed to create working share buttons for. The email sharing works well, with a full image of the page being shared. The Twitter share could be improved by adding the page title to the text, rather than just tweeting the current page's link.
As with any version one, not everything in Axis works flawlessly, and not every aspect of the design makes sense. In the browser plugin version, you're duplicating the function of the search bar that's at the top of the browser with a new one at the bottom. The same, of course, could be said for favourites. Another drawback is that Internet Explorer's add-on timer reports it as taking up 0.37 seconds, and indeed, IE did feel slower with the plugin installed. On the iOS side, a key drawback is that you can't make it your default browser - a limitation caused by iOS rather than one inherent to Axis.
I love the idea of Yahoo Axis - removing the middleman in search, that page of ten blue links. But its implementation, especially on the desktop browser plugins and phone version, needs some refinement. This is only natural, considering it's a ‘version one' of a completely new piece of technology. There's already a lot to like about Axis - its slick use of touch gestures on the tablet and the way it lets you move a Web session from desktop to mobile without losing a beat. I'm also a fan of the concept of getting you to answers without requiring you to load a Web page. Let's just hope Yahoo can iron out the wrinkles. If it can, Axis has the potential to revive it as a major search player.
Pros: Gets to Web search results faster; Lets you continue search from one device to another; Preloads search result and favourite pages for faster viewing; Shows relevant info before you load a webpage.
Cons: iPhone version has display issues; Browser plugin slows Internet Explorer 9.
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