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October 18, 2012

AOL Looks to Redefine Webmail with Alto Client

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

While AOL (News - Alert) in part made e-mail the staple of communications it is today--even giving us the immortal chirp and chipper "You've got mail!" pronouncement--AOL's position in e-mail of late has been less than noticeable. That's about to change, though, as today, they've announced their new Alto e-mail client, a web-based IMAP client that allows for multiple e-mail accounts to be managed from one central website.

The creation of Alto, according to Joshua Ramirez, Senior Director of Product for AOL Mail and Alto, came about due in part to two key points: one, no one wanted another e-mail address as they already had several, and two, people wanted a central point to manage all those various e-mail addresses that they have. The end result, geared to do just that, was Alto, which launches today as a Web app by invitation only, with an eye toward wide release in the opening days of 2013.

Image via Shutterstock

Alto is said to be every bit as functional as other desktop apps like Outlook, yet with a focus on search in much the same way that Gmail does. This approach provides a robust footing from which users can manage several different accounts at once. Management is the thrust of the whole operation, with a new concept known as "Stacks" coming heavily into play throughout the whole of the operation.

Stacks allow users to more readily sort the various bits and pieces that land in their inboxes into more manageable systems. For instance, those who are heavily into Groupon might keep one stack for daily deal e-mails, or another stack for work-related e-mails, or another stack devoted to mail from close friends. Then, when further mail comes in related to those stacks, it's funneled into those stacks for easy consumption at any time.

Additionally, AOL has ramped up the search processes with Alto significantly, allowing it to search all of a user's e-mail accounts at once from one central search bar. It also boasts shortcut buttons to both Google (News - Alert) Calendar and Google Drive.

Early word says the overall system is a terrific idea, but execution is a bit on the spotty side. This was an extremely ambitious platform for AOL to take on, so a few bumps in the road in the early going isn't exactly out of line. Improvements like a threaded conversation view are set to show up in the future, as well as a mobile site yet to come. Some may find the design scheme a bit intimidating, but it simply goes to show that AOL is out to retake its former standing as the first thing people think of when they've got mail.

Whether AOL can pull off a return to primacy in the face of a whole lot of competition remains to be seen. However, it's quite clear that they're going to give it their all in the attempt.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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