The company that brought mail to the masses has taken a new look at email -- and hopes to once again revolutionize the inbox.
AOL’s Alto is a free new service that works with your existing Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail and .Mac account (sorry, Hotmail users, Microsoft's service doesn't support the necessary IMAP standard). It sifts through the mile-high stack that is your inbox and automatically sorts the thousands of messages piled up there into “stacks” -- photos, attachments, daily deals and so on -- in order to make it all far more accessible.
After all, email isn’t just email any more, said David Temkin, AOL’s senior vice president of mail.
“The nature of the medium has completely changed,” he told FoxNews.com.
'The way we use email has changed radically over the years, but the core email experience hasn’t.'
- Joshua Ramirez, senior director of product for AOL Mail
He’s right, of course; what was once simply a digital way to write your aunt Flo in Tulsa is now how we get catalogs, pass photographs to our family, read the news and more. And with all that junk in your inbox trunk, the modern email account has not 10 or 20 personal letters to family and friends but thousands or even tens of thousands of things.
If you’ve ever missed an email from your sister under that deluge, you’ll find Alto a wonderful answer to the problem.
“The way we use email has changed radically over the years, but the core email application experience hasn’t,” said Joshua Ramirez, senior director of product for AOL Mail. Gmail, Yahoo, and everything else is at heart one big list, he said. Alto is different.
When you first enroll, Alto takes an hour or two to read your mail, sorting it into those stacks like a digital mailman. It reads the metadata embedded in your pictures to sort them by date. It associates the people emailing you with their Facebook account, since that message from Shelia is from the same person who posted that pie recipe on Twitter.
Temkin assured FoxNews.com that the company respected privacy concens. AOL doesn’t send any information back to its databases, he said, or even save copies of your messages on its servers.
Once sorted, the program presents you not with the boring list you’re familiar with but a few elegant piles. And creating new ones is simple enough -- any emails from Steve and Jim at the office can be automatically sent to one. Statements from your bank and credit card company? Straight to another.
Alto’s layout is beautiful, too, with tall, elegant fonts and subtle coloring; use it for a few minutes and the utilitarian inbox you had before will become the silliest thing you’ve ever used. I have how many messages? Which ones are important? Where’s the beef?
“We built Alto for people who believe, as we do, that organization is beautiful, who are overloaded with email and aren’t happy with the status quo of existing email experiences,” said Joshua Ramirez, senior director of product for AOL Mail.
The app is far from perfect, of course. There’s no way to tweak the contents of the photos folder, for example, so you’ll likely find irrelevant images among the good stuff. And a “Top Stories” stack is meant as interface to your favorite news sites; at present, however, it’s largely a way to feed you Huffington Post headlines. The people page is neat, but only supports Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn at present.
Plus it’s a limited beta release, at present; visit www.altomail.com and you might be allowed to try it out.
But the app has great potential. And for anyone suffering under inbox overload, give it a shot. It’s enough to make you glad you’ve got mail. Again.
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.