Embattled Yahoo prepares Livestand launch with magazine publishers

There’s nothing quite like a crisis to focus the mind, and Yahoo – currently without a chief executive, up for sale and the subject of intense speculation the world over, has found the impetus to bring its delayed digital newsstand product, Livestand, to market.

In a whistlestop European visit last week, I met with Yahoo’s chief product officer, Blake Irving. Incredibly focused and equally impressive, he’s been with Yahoo for 16 months, tasked with the small job of “re-imagining what the company’s project roadmap looks like”.

He had no time for talk of boardroom bust-ups, future mergers or plans Bs, for him it was very much business as normal, only faster, faster, faster.

“The company believes in what we’re doing with the product,” he says. “We want to accelerate it and get to growth quicker. What we’ve been building, at the fundamental technological layers, is the right stuff to do.”

Currently sitting at the top of Irving’s in-tray is the US launch of Yahoo’s own reader app, Livestand, which promises to take on and surpass the likes of Flipboard and AOL’s Editions: “Think of it as a tablet version of Yahoo,” he says.

“In addition it’s a magazine stand, where you can get different types of content, and it’s also HTML 5 based.”

Livestand as the publishing game-changer

First announced in February this year, and chalked to launch by June, Livestand is an HMTL 5 based product that hopes to attract publishers of all sizes wanting to launch personalised media-rich content for tablets and smart phones.

Yahoo is hoping it will attract the attention of magazine publishers in particular, with its platform-agnostic solution to digitising content. It displays a contents page of top articles that can be easily scrolled through horizontally left or right with a touch.

Dynamic in-app ads can be dropped in and around the content with ease and updated or replaced at will.

Irving says: “What we’re trying to do is create a container that says we have a visual experience that allows us to take graphics, videos and text into a consumption that allows us to display it in the same way across IoS or [An] Driod. That’s what every publisher on the planet’s trying to do.”

The potential for Livestand could be huge, with most magazine publishers wanting to be available on tablets but still openly complaining about the time, cost and restrictions involved in creating bespoke apps for the individual platforms.

Irving adds: “[With Livestand] You don’t have to publish more than once… If you’re either Google or Apple, you want guys writing to your platform. But if I’m a publisher, I don’t want to have to write to those things two times.”

The “personalisation of content” is another key USP for Livestand. It has the ability to learn a user’s preferences over time, so each subscriber can receive tailored versions of the same magazines, with articles and layout weighted to their interests.

Upcoming marketing activity is set to pitch Livestand to consumers as being the equivalent of “a personalised, never-ending newsstand in your satchel”, while advertisers are being told that Livestand will deliver “big, bold, eye-catching ads” that “adapt and respond to touch interactions, creating a personalised brand experience”.

Partners on board ready for launch

Irving says Livestand will arrive in the US launch “in the autumn”, and when pushed he adds, “it’ll be pretty quick, it’s happening now”. Partnerships with UK publishers and elsewhere in western Europe are set to follow in 2012, although Irving is reticent to speculate on even what quarter they’re aiming for.

A number of publishing launch partners are said to be in place, including “a couple of big guys and not big guys”.

One magazine being bandied is specialist US title, Surfer. Curiously, on the demo I saw Forbes branding was also heavily in the mix, a tie-up that would make sense knowing the business brand’s own global aspirations for its contributor-led media rich content.

Irving provides a further steer: “Think magazines, think more graphically rich brands. Like a Wired, Like a Surfer magazine, like a motor trend, or a Top Gear kind of thing. Enthusiast mags where people will religiously read those magazines on a monthly basis because it’s so close to them.”

Livestand is set to be just one of a number of tech launches for Yahoo this autumn, despite the sudden departure of group chief executive Carol Bartz.

Among the developments will be an extension of Yahoo’s WebPlayer, which provides the ability to search and embed Yahoo content on other websites.

Such activity will be welcome news to Yahoo’s long-suffering shareholders – was it really just three years ago the company turned down Microsoft’s $40/share merger offer (Yahoo today at $14.97/share). Yet many will continue to feel frustrated by the apparent sluggish rollout.

Bartz herself first presented a version of Livestand at the Mobile World Congress back in February. For every week that passes, another magazine publisher announces a new deal with Apple, or invests in creating an Android app, and in the process becomes less in need of Yahoo’s third-way solution – at least in the short term.

Irving remains bullish, after talking with “folks in the traditional print business”, and most major media agencies, he says: “We think this is frankly a game-changer for the way you not only consume content on this device [PC], but on these devices [tablets].

Pointing to Yahoo’s near 700m users in markets around the world, all with the “same set of publishing tools and same set of content rendering tools”, he says the immediate scale Livestand can offer publishers will be another standout benefit.

“When we develop something like this on top of that backend, we are basically making a statement, saying we can go into market just about anywhere,” he says. “Some of the contact we’ve had with external publishers already is, ‘where do you want to take your publication?’”