AOL Wants to Renovate Your Inbox

Courtesy AOL

AOL unveiled a new webmail service yesterday called Alto.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Alto is not a new webmail service in the way that Gmail and Yahoo! Mail are webmail services. And that’s a good thing—the world doesn’t need another e-mail address to consider switching to. (How’s that new domain working out, Microsoft?)

Alto is what you would call a “skin” of sorts: It’s a different visual representation of your inbox that works with your existing e-mail account (so long as that account is from Google, Yahoo, AOL, or Apple’s iCloud/Mail service—they’re the only ones compatible with Alto at this time).

What’s most interesting about Alto is how it tries to collate certain kinds of e-mails into “stacks,” which in this case look exactly how they sound: like stacks of paper that are loosely grouped on the home screen. Click on a stack, and you get a grid view of its contents. There are stacks for “daily deals,” “photos,” “attachments,” “retailers,” and “social notifications.”

The idea here is to segregate certain kinds of messages from the rest of your inbox, so that messages from real people get more prominence than sale notification from J. Crew. The stacks are intelligent, in that they are able to identify automatically which messages may come from, say, Groupon and which come from a friend or colleague. Furthermore, the stacks can get smarter: If you move an e-mail alert from LinkedIn into the “social notifications” stack, Alto will treat further similar messages the same way. Messages with photos or attachments still reside in your inbox, but there are stacks for each as well, so you can quickly find that photo your friend sent you from the Amalfi Coast.

(If you like the idea of stacks but don’t necessarily want those messages moved out of your inbox, there’s a setting that will allow messages to exist in both places. You can also create a stack of your own, based on parameters such as who sent it, who received it, or what is contained in the subject line.)

Alto is very attractive, in a “designy” kind of way. It uses contemporary fonts and plenty of white space between messages. In some ways, it reminds me of Windows 8 in its spare, two-dimensional aesthetic (something that Microsoft has also pursued with

But it may not appeal to power users. For starters, all that white space and those oversize fonts mean you see fewer messages per screen than on most e-mail services’ standard interfaces. I could view about nine messages at a time on Alto; on Gmail, I could see about three times as many. I suppose AOL would say that my inbox is now less cluttered, so it’s not such a big deal that I’m not seeing that Jetsetter e-mail I keep meaning to unsubscribe from. Still, I get enough legitimate e-mails that the volume remains high, and I’d like to see more of them at once.

Alto does include a novel feature that used to be found only in browser plug-ins such as Boomerang: You can have a message reappear in your inbox at a later time. Alto calls this “snooze” and lets you set a time in the future when you want to see a particular e-mail at the top of your inbox. It’s a nice feature, since some e-mails function as reminders, and you want to see them when they’re most relevant.

Alto also has a link to calendar services such as Google Calendar and says it will have its own calendar overlay soon. That’s good, but Alto’s going to have to add a few more features before it can function as a true replacement. For starters, an IM client would be nice. Many webmail services integrate mail with a chat feature, and until Alto can do that (maybe start with AIM, ’cause … you know, it’s in the family?), you can’t run Alto and ditch your other mail page altogether.

Also, if you have a signature file that automatically appears at the bottom of each message, it won’t carry over to messages written in Alto. The site is still in private beta, so it’s possible that some of these issues will be resolved in the coming weeks and months. The site is expected to be rolled out for public use sometime in the first quarter of 2013.

There is another thing about Alto that was curiously good. It got incoming messages faster than my native e-mail site. With both Alto and Gmail running side by side, messages would appear in Alto first, showing up in Gmail only a minute or two later. You’d think that a company’s own webmail service would access its data faster than a third party, but for now, Alto has the speed advantage.