readingMail.gifEver since Yahoo acquired San Francisco e-mail provider Oddpost last summer, we’ve been anxious to see how it intended to take the Oddpost technology and apply it to Yahoo Mail. The wait is finally over. We got a peek at the new Yahoo Mail today. And the company is announcing tonight the upcoming start of beta-testing for the “most significant overhaul” of Yahoo Mail since it first launched in 1997.

Oddpost users will feel right at home with the new Yahoo Mail. It includes much of the Oddpost goodness; in other words, a user interface that feels more like a desktop e-mail client than a Web page (click on the thumbnail to see an older screenshot of Oddpost). Fast-loading in-boxes, drag-and-drop messages, one-click deleting, standard short-cuts such as (Control N for new message)…it’s all there, taking advantage of Dynamic HTML technology. They’ve even kept Subject-O-Matique, the whimsical, automatic subject line generator.

Better yet, the technology now works with Firefox on both Mac and Windows; Oddpost was Windows IE only.

The new look and feel of Yahoo Mail will invite comparisons to Google’s Gmail, the speedy email service that launched last April to much acclaim.

We asked Ethan Diamond, one of the Oddpost founders and now a Yahoo Mail product manager, to compare Yahoo Mail to Gmail. Diamond said he believes most e-mail users still favor using folders to organize messages; Gmail eschews folders in favor of “labels.” Diamond also touted the keyboard shortcuts that the new Yahoo Mail offers, and the ability to work with messages in new browser windows.

More intriguing to us is what Yahoo may have planned down the road. RSS is a given. It was in Oddpost and will be in the new Yahoo Mail. But Diamond said that Yahoo has also created an API for the mail backend. This means Yahoo developers will be able to create a wide variety of interchangeable user interfaces that can be laid on top of the core mail technology. As an example, Diamond said, Yahoo could build a UI aimed at youths and another for Japanese users. Yahoo users might even be able to pick their own UI’s someday.

So when does this roll-out? Oddpost account-holders and heavy Yahoo Mail users will be among the first to try the new technology, which will launch in beta-test mode, in the coming weeks. Beta-testers will be able to toggle between the two versions.

Expect a gradual transiton for the masses, who may be less-prepared to abandon the tried-and-true look and feel of Yahoo Mail.

“We don’t want to interrupt the experience or change it for people who don’t want to change,” said Yahoo spokeswoman Karen Mahon.

The company will also need to maintain a traditional version of Yahoo Mail for Web browsers or other devices that do not work with the new version.

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