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AOL's 'Project Phoenix' e-mail overhaul is here

The revamped system looks a lot like Gmail, but promises some new features like a tabbed messaging interface and built-in text messaging.

The newly redesigned AOL Mail, 'Project Phoenix'

Once ubiquitous, AOL e-mail has grown into such a punchline that the possession of an active @aol.com address is likely to result in many a playful Luddite joke. But on Sunday, AOL officially unveiled the results of "Project Phoenix," the long-anticipated overhaul of its e-mail system--and they even promise they won't make you use the @aol.com domain.

AOL's been engaging in an ongoing, across-the-board attempt to revive its flagging brand, but the timing of this particular announcement is telling. Facebook is rumored to be launching an expanded messaging service--perhaps as complex as a full-on Webmail client--in a company announcement Monday morning, so the odd Sunday debut of Project Phoenix could be an attempt to get there first--by a few hours, at least.

The full AOL Project Phoenix release will come next year, but at the moment is in a limited beta phase. Here's the lowdown: It looks a lot like Gmail's interface, with a few extra bells and whistles. There's a "quick bar" at the top for sending short e-mails, instant messages (which pop up in very Google Chat-like windows), and text messages. A side bar of "smart view" content previews attached files and maps of locations detailed in the message (AOL representatives assured that these previews only show up from confirmed contacts, so there's no chance of porn spam making mischief here). Messages open in a tabbed interface for easy flipping between messages and the main in-box.

Perhaps more interestingly, you can hook up additional in-boxes from mail providers like Gmail and Hotmail--ideally, other non-e-mail in-boxes, like Facebook messages, may be able to show up here sometime--and you also don't have to have an @aol.com in your AOL mail domain. The other domains AOL offers in the beta version include ygm.com (an abbreviation of its classic "you've got mail"), love.com, wow.com, and games.com.

That said, while the @aol.com domain may prompt snickering, people do still actually use it: AOL said in the Project Phoenix announcement that mail accounts for 45 percent of its page views.