AOL wants to save the internet from the 'death of email'

Say hello to Alto, an email client that hopes you'll be thinking "You've Got Mail" for years to come.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read
Watch this: AOL wants to save you from email overload with Alto

It has been the year of the '90s reboot. With the decade's defining classics like Pokemon, "The X-Files" and the Backstreet Boys making a comeback this year, it's only right that AOL wants to manage your email again.

The once-dominant dial-up service behind the iconic "You've Got Mail" alert is hoping to slide its way back into your inbox with Alto.

Enlarge Image

A look at Alto's email dashboard.


Wait, don't hit the trash can icon on this story yet! Instead of competing with email giants like Gmail and Outlook, Alto serves as an email aggregation inbox. It takes in all of the emails from your various accounts and automatically organizes them into "stacks" for categories like Travel, Shopping and Finance.

It marks the latest attempt to make sense of the increasingly overwhelming flow of email that floods our multiple inboxes. It's enough to make you want to give up on email altogether, right? Not so, says AOL.

"I hear people say, 'we're looking at the death of email,'" Arlo Rose, Alto's general manager, said in an interview. "That's just not true....In reality, email is used more than ever for what we call transactional mail."

Transactional mail, like the automated email you get after ordering an item or booking a flight, has become an integral part of the inbox.

Enlarge Image

Alto's first look, back from 2012 during its private beta.


Alto first launched to solve "inbox fatigue" in 2012 with a private beta, but quietly retreated after it was unable to handle the demand and to integrate it into "AOL's core system."

Its biggest mistake might have been that it didn't offer a mobile app, sticking to web only.

"This hard reset was done, a lot of folks went back and said, 'How do we do this right this time around?'" Rose said.

The team studied email users and found most had multiple accounts, whether for work or personal use. And there were deals and discounts, lost within the sea of emails.

"What we found, almost anything you do online, or even in brick and mortar stores, results in an email," said Marcel Becker, Alto's director of product. "It's all just sitting in various mailboxes; no one is deleting things anymore."

Alto treats your inbox like it's data, applying its algorithm to organize your emails, even resurrecting older messages if they become relevant in future dates.

"Every action you take online results in an email, but the inbox view of this data is an outdated laundry list and does not serve up what you need when you need it," the Alto team said in a statement.

If you book a flight months in advance, Alto will bring the note back up when you're about to travel and pair it with related emails such as hotel reservations or car rentals. It also links to other apps on your phone, like Uber or Google Maps.

While the folders have some cool features, like the Photos stack that collects all your emails that have images attached and compiles them into a gallery, Alto's automatic organization still has more to learn.

In my "Shopping" stack, Alto threw in emails related to CNET's 3:59 podcast and a New York City crime story. They likely inadvertently fell into the shopping group after picking up the terms "subscribe" for the podcast and "shipment" for the article about three men caught with $1 million worth of stolen eels.

Becker hopes Alto's automated learning will actually help it fix those judgment lapses, with users being able to report incorrect categorizations. The team is also building a feature that would let users move emails from stack to stack, in case of errors.

Alto kicked off its reboot Thursday and hopes to make inboxes in again. This time around, it will be available for iOS and Android along with its web services.