It is perhaps telling that AOL has now released its Phoenix into the wild. That's "Project Phoenix," an overhaul of the company's online e-mail service that comes in the wake of a sea of rumors regarding a new Facebook e-mail service that's allegedly on the way this week.
Unfortunately (for users), the full launch of Phoenix isn't expected to occur until 2011. The current limited beta test -- applicable to a fraction of the site's 30.8 million Webmail users (itself, a paltry number when thrown up against Microsoft's 361 million or Google's 193 million) -- is a zippy new rehash that focuses on tighter integration with external e-mail clients splashed across an almost Gmail-like interface.
That's right. AOL is allowing its users to essentially "import" their accounts from Yahoo, Gmail, and other e-mail services. The feature officially rolls out tomorrow, but it's a gamble that stacks all the chips on the service's interface and features -- the company presumes that its users carry (and use) other e-mail accounts across rival clients, and it hopes that you'll be swayed enough to want to make AOL your default hub for all.
But that's not all on the integration front. A kind of shortcut bar lives above your main Inbox listing, which allows you to quickly fire off e-mails, instant messages, Facebook updates, and Twitter updates directly from your webmail. A sidebar on the right side of your Inbox delivers up a thumbnail-based photo gallery of all the images currently sitting in your in-box for quick access, but it also transforms into a Mapquest tool (with directions) whenever Phoenix notices addresses in a given message.
Borrowing a page from desktop clients, Phoenix allows you to set up your in-box in one of three viewing modes: compact, a standard "one e-mail, one line" approach that should be familiar to anyone with a computer by now; expanded, which gives you a few additional lines of text for previewing a message before you actually go to read the whole thing; and a "reading pane" option, which displays the entire message in an preview window below a standard list of e-mails.
World of Warcraft players take note -- AOL is also offering up additional domain names for registering an e-mail address if the default "@aol" designation makes your eyes roll. You can now snag names at ygm.com, games.com, wow.com, and love.com. Insert a land rush for witty e-mail addresses here.
If the overhaul to its service seems like a "too little, too late" approach in the face of some pretty powerful competition, it's important to take note that webmail access powers roughly 45 percent of all of the company's pageviews on aol.com.
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