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AOL's New Alto Client Is Visual Email, and You Don't Need a New Address

Email is arguably the most important bit of tech you've got, but email's still the same as it's always been: You get a stack of letters every day in your inbox to deal with, and eventually those messages get bumped off by new ones. Because of the...

by Derek Mead
Oct 18 2012, 2:49pm
Above image via GigaOm

Email is arguably the most important bit of tech you’ve got, but email’s still the same as it’s always been: You get a stack of letters every day in your inbox to deal with, and eventually those messages get bumped off by new ones. Because of the propensity for emails to disappear into a backlog forever, dealing with email has become the worst aspect of our tech-addled lives: You have to deal with them when they show up, or risk forgetting about them forever. Here in 2012, the one thing that hasn’t changed in the tech space in decades is that email is just too goddamn needy.

AOL, still looking to reboot itself from the dialup days, is shooting to actual change the way we deal with email. The company’s new service, called Alto, isn’t a new email client provider. You don’t have to sign up for yet another email address, because as David Temkin, AOL’s senior VP of mail said, "We need another email address like we need a hole in the head." Instead, Alto, which is in limited release starting today, is designed to be an intelligent aggregator of the email accounts you already have.

Gmail is still the standard-bearer for email, even post-redesign: Its interface is the same intuitive inbox that almost every client has used forever, but it’s got enough extra ability under the hood — smart sorting, excellent search, a deep library of emoticons — that it’s endured since its 2004 launch. Even new offerings, like Microsoft’s excellent Outlook, aren’t a far cry from the Goog’s own system.

Alto puts little emphasis on the Inbox list, which is a bit jarring, but Stacks make email easier to work with. Via Tech Crunch

Does that mean that inboxes have come as far as they can? Well, according to Temkin and Josh Ramirez, the senior director of product for AOL Mail and Alto, that’s exactly the issue AOL faced while considering a reboot of AOL Mail. Most email clients have kept the same general inbox interface because it’s easy for non-savvy users, like those AOL still has in droves, to use. A full reboot of AOL Mail would risk losing those folks. Instead, Temkin and Ramirez decided to change the way they looked at email.

Alto is rather simple: It’s designed to aggregate email from whatever addresses you add (currently only AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, and Apple addresses are supported, but that’s supposed to change) and sort them visually. Rather than having messages sort through folders, they show up in tiles, with entire threads easily sorted by clicking and dragging. By filtering content to stacks — stacks for daily deals, social notifications, and messages from stores, like shipping notifications, come pre-set when you sign up — Alto makes pre-sorting your inbox pretty easy. And those stacks are easily sorted — you can pull out all of the images from a stack, for example, and download them at once.

If this all sounds like smart folders in Gmail, it basically is. But the key is in the interface: Rather than having to set up folders, and set certain addresses to automatically filter to them (and blessedly bypass the inbox), it’s all visual. You just drag a Groupon email over to your “Only look when I have money” stack, and all other Groupon emails can be easily set to follow. And for anyone who deals with a lot of photos and video through email, a visual experience is a blessing.

I think that putting an emphasis on visuals makes email easier to sort, but we’ll see if that lasts. Via GigaOm

All that aside, Anthony Ha at Tech Crunch mentioned Alto’s best feature: a so-called snooze button, which lets you mark an email as read so that it disappears for a time before roaring back to the top of your inbox when you’re ready to deal with it. For anyone who’s gotten important emails during non-business hours — which is basically always — being able to surely remind yourself of said emails when you’re actually working is a blessing.

Still, is it enough to make people actually use Alto? Well, there’s one huge benefit: You don’t actually have to give up your accounts to create a new address (of which no one should ever need at this point). So the barrier to entry is rather small, and Alto’s push to avoid the inbox list as much as possible is refreshing. It’s not trying to be so ambitious as to replace all other email providers, and I think that’s smart. It’s just too hard to convince people to drop what they have. But by creating a new platform with a smart interface for dealing with email, Alto looks like it will be a useful tool, especially for aggregating multiple accounts. And for AOL, it’s a great move: It’s an easy way to get more serious users back into the AOL ecosystem without alienating those that are still using Netscape.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.