With its new search/browser app Axis, Yahoo is trying to change the search game, while also trying to change its image as a troubled company.
Late in the day Wednesday, Yahoo launched Axis, which it's calling a "search browser." Axis is an HTML5-based browser app, as well as a browser plug-in, that delivers search results as images rather than as links.
The new product is aimed at making search faster and easier. Axis also makes searching more visual, an area where Google and Microsoft's Bing, the two major forces in the search world, are not focused.
The launch was a surprising move for a company that has not only been struggling to regain its once-prominent position in the Internet world but that also recently suffered the departure of its CEO, which placed the company in an embarrassing spotlight.
"It's the first significant innovation, and sign of life, from Yahoo in many months," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "If they can pick up some users, it could really help them move forward."
In the last month, Yahoo has been coping with a PR nightmare. Its new CEO, Scott Thompson, who took over in January, was caught with erroneous academic information on his resume, as well as in documents that the company filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company formed a committee to look into Thompson's background and the circumstances surrounding his hiring.
Thompson left the company May 13 and Ross Levinsohn, who had been serving as Yahoo's head of global media, stepped in as interim CEO. It's the second time in eight months that the company has been without a permanent CEO.
Now is the time for Yahoo to do something impressive and get users thinking about a Yahoo success instead of trouble, analysts said.
"If they can pull this off, it could help put them back on the map," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "I think it is the best idea I've seen out of them in nearly a decade."
Yahoo saw a niche it could take advantage of and then executed on it, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy.
"With Google owning generic and mobile search, and Bing in the position to own social search, Yahoo needed something that distinguished itself from the pack," he said.
However, the launch of Axis could be more than a game changer just for Yahoo. It could be a gamer changer in the overall search market.
"I think the Yahoo visual search capabilities are more in line with the post-PC era," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "Being able to look at an image that comes up from search criteria is much faster and optimized for touch... I think it creates an alternative to Google and Bing and that itself is a threat. We'll see how they respond, but it's the most unique thing I've seen from Yahoo in a long time."
Moorhead noted that visual search could be a problem for Google and Bing because it's a departure from the norm. "It breaks their user models," he added. "Yahoo can score immediate points with the fact they are even doing something unique. If Yahoo can develop a strong following with any demographic, they have won some ground."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.