For more than a year, Yahoo has been talking about two things that will help it stop losing users’ time to rivals including Google and Microsoft: making Yahoo core services work better and partnering with clear winners in adjacent web offerings such as Facebook and Twitter.

The biggest overhaul of Yahoo Mail in five years does both of those things. Out tonight in a beta version that will only be seen by users who request it, the new Yahoo mail is, as previously reported, twice as fast as the old one and integrates with social networking, photos and videos in an intuitive and unobtrusive way.

As with many Yahoo improvements, a casual observer might wonder what took them so long. The answer is that Yahoo’s code base was so clunky that it took ages to sort out. As with the recently reinvigourated
Yahoo News pages, there was a lot of heavy lifting.

Yahoo Mail clearly needed the work: its monthly users worldwide have dropped by 10 per cent in the year through September, to 273m, while the top provider, Microsoft’s Hotmail, slipped only 3 per cent to
362m. No. 3 Google is gaining fast, adding 21 per cent to 193m, according to comScore.

The result, if overdue, is hard to find fault with. Without leaving their e-mail page, Yahoo users can see their photos or watch YouTube videos sent to them via links.

More surprising, Yahoo Mail is now better than Microsoft–and much better than Google–for users who are on e-mail so much that they want to use it as a portal to the rest of the web.

Yahoo is now integrated deeply with Facebook and Twitter, so that one can dispatch a status update to both of them and Yahoo’s own Pulse service at the same time. It’s also easy to check updates from one’s

That makes Microsoft’s choices seem odder. Hotmail offers e-mail integration with Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, but not Twitter.

The most striking contrast, though, is with Google. Google’s mail may be burning up the charts with solid functionality, but its social networking add-ins begin and end with Buzz, Google’s homegrown and
unpopular attempt at a Twitter-like service.

For those who like their e-mail straight up, Google might still be the way to go. But for those who want to cut down on the time they spend clicking among various web-page tabs, Yahoo has a point.

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