AOL is still swinging on the e-mail front. The latest AOL mail twist is a cloud-based product dubbed Alto -- and it's designed to work alongside existing e-mail accounts from the likes of Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, .Mac and .me. Alto's stated purpose is to put users back in control of their e-mail.
A free platform that claims to re-imagine the e-mail experience from the ground up with a heavy emphasis on combating inbox fatigue, Alto is rolling out organizational features and what it calls a "clear user experience" to give users visual relief from overloaded inboxes jammed with everything from daily deals to newsletters to social notifications and beyond.
"The way we use e-mail has changed radically over the years, but the core e-mail application experience hasn't," said Joshua Ramirez, senior director of Product for AOL Mail. "We've taken a deep look at how people use e-mail now, and designed an application around that reality."
Stacking Up E-Mails?
You don't have to sign up for a new e-mail address to use Alto. It blends multiple e-mail accounts in a single inbox. At the heart of Alto is a tool called "stacks" that automatically pulls out and organizes important pieces of a user's inbox for easy access and quick viewing. Users can drag and drop individual e-mails to create stacks based on sender, recipients, keywords, and other characteristics.
"When you sort through physical mail, you put it into stacks because it's a natural way to decide what's important, what's junk, and what to save for later," Ramirez said. "We wanted to recreate that experience with Alto, but make it intelligent and automatic, to easily deal with the hundreds of e-mails we get every day."
Alto works to create a visual story of the e-mail inbox. Photos, for example, are automatically put in a dedicated photo stack and can be sorted by sender, date, and inbox, or shared right from Alto to Facebook or Twitter. Attachments, too, get their own stack and you can see thumbnail previews of full documents and presentations at a glance. There are also stacks for social updates and daily deals and retailers.
Remembering Google Wave
Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, said there have been many efforts to clean up the overloaded inbox, mostly unsuccessful attempts to bring intelligence and advanced functionality to the problem of automatically prioritizing and sorting e-mail.
"The concept of Stacks in AOL's Alto is promising. However it's not clear that people will see a need for a new Web-based e-mail client. From the outside it appears unnecessary and redundant. Beyond this, too many features or too much 'sophistication' will scare most people away," Sterling told us.
"In order to gain adoption for Alto, AOL will need to focus on a few highly useful features and aggressively educate people about their benefits. Otherwise Alto will go the way of Google Wave, which was another recent effort to bring e-mail into the 21st Century, which failed because it was too feature rich and complex."