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Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

What Yahoo Gives Back

With Yahoo under fire from all directions, it’s important to remember all the great stuff the company has given back to the web design and development community. Perhaps their ship is sinking. If so, consider this a salute.

The technology world is fired up like a five-minute cocktail partyover Yahoo’s CEO Carol Bartz getting fired by her board of directors. It was sudden, but predictably sad in the same way you’re sad about your neighbor’s three-legged cat with the giant tumor and case of perpetual vertigo finally getting put down.

Everyone’s all down on Y!. OK, their CEOs have the tenure of celebrity diets. And their infrastructure is stirred around like a vat of oatmeal. And their revenue model is getting a Holyfield-level beatdown by Facebook. And their top talent rats have been jumping ship for years (back to 2006, and still in 2011). And they buy a bunch of shit that just disappears. And their stock has flatlined for years. And, as a brand, they’re nothing but a yellowing photo album and wheelchair ramp to the hot young tech destination of the mid 90s.

But they still get millions of eyeballs every day, they still employ some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley, and they’re still giving back to the web development community at a level almost no one else can match. In the midst of their current turmoil, I’d like to thank Yahoo for making my job easier through the following awesomeness.

Page Speed Research and YSlow

Before anyone was taking front-end performance seriously, Yahoo’s teams were diving into what really made pages slower than a teenager getting out of bed. At the time, common knowledge mandated that a sludgy back-end (poorly written PHP, crap MySQL structure, throttled hardware stack) was the only thing devs needed to concern themselves with. Yahoo’s research found that 80% of load time was on the client side. (And Strangeloop’s more recent research pegs it much higher.)

Today, we all happily obsess over HTTP requests, image crushing, minification, gzip compression, parallel script loading and more, forgetting that it was Yahoo who laid down the law back in 2006. These 30+ rules were the genesis of performance-focused books, conferences, blogs, and a thousand resumes being updated from “designer” to “front-end engineer”.

Predictably, Yahoo’s YSlow extension remains the best tool for testing against their own criteria. It’s not a solve-world-hunger extension, but it provides a high-level checklist of things my sites (or other sites) are doing wrong.

Accessibility Blog

We all know accessibility is important. We understand the technical basics. We’ve heard of 508 and something about WAI. But Yahoo has full-time staff who obsess over these things, and rampantly share their findings through a brilliant blog and Twitter feed.

These guys don’t just rehash typical accessibility 101 (alternative text! tab order! argh!). They relate the spirit and broader purpose of accessibility. The challenges our disabled brethren face on a daily basis. The common sense that needs to be applied to providing accessible tools. How the concept is not something to be retrofitted, but something that should be embraced from the earliest research stages through UI to architecture to testing.

YUI

Back in the heady yonder years of 2006, the JavaScript library landscape was wide open. Prototype had paved a cowpath, Mootools was on the rise and jQuery and YUI were hell bent on out-releasing each other (the former launched version 1.0 in ’06, the latter launched version 2).

Today, the flurry has died down. jQuery won the popular vote, in spades. Despite this, YUI continues to be developed by Yahoo.

Why is this important? Because YUI presents a compelling alternative to jQuery; it approaches things differently, some of them quite innovative. (The concept of loading a small seed file first, instead of a giant payload, is pretty appealing from a performance perspective.) It continues to be actively used by many sites even though it never caught on much with the general riffraff like you and me.

Pipes

A highly underrated tool, Yahoo pipes allows you to basically turn any website into an API, or mash together feeds, or create new output in any format like JSON, or basically mix/match/crash content and data from all kinds of places and make new information. A great UI and surprising power makes you wonder why Yahoo never got more attention or traction with Pipes.

But then I wonder the same about all of their products.

A Soapbox for Smart People

But at the end of the day, the broad web community has gained the most from the collected voices of Yahoo’s experts blogging, tweeting, speaking, githubbing, sharing, responding and otherwise contributing to the Great Conversation. Once upon a time, and perhaps maybe still (maybe), the company employed the absolute best in the web business. Here are a select few, some of whom I’ve been following for years:

And when I asked on Twitter for more, I got several comprehensive eye-opening amazing lists. Tons of people. All doing awesome things and talking about it.

Anybody else have any favorite Yahoo contributions?

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