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AOL: We do too innovate

At Mix '07 tomorrow, AOL is going to show off a new way to monitor e-mail, IMs, photos, and videos.

At the Mix '07 developers' conference tomorrow, AOL will show off its new Vista sidebar widget built with Silverlight technology. Called the "social e-mail gadget," this new tool will let you know when your personal A-list of contacts sends you an e-mail or IM, or posts a photo or video on an AOL service.

New and different

AOL's upcoming rockin' Vista widget. CNET

I kind of like the idea. E-mail is too cumbersome to monitor in a widget, unless you are rigorous about creating and maintaining filters, and even standard IM buddy lists have become visually overwhelming, due to the number of contacts most people now have. This new miniapplication lets you keep track of just the few people that really matter to you.

Who's in your A-list changes, of course--sometimes daily. For example, during the workday you might want to monitor your boss and your direct reports, or your top customers. In the evening you might want to know when your family is trying to reach you. When you're traveling your list might change again. AOL's widget will let you define different profiles that you can apply. In future versions, it may switch automatically based on time of day or location.

The graphics are a little precious, though. The two templates I saw assigned either surfboards or guitars to individuals. Hopefully a quieter interface will be available when the service goes into public beta this summer. Future versions will also (probably) monitor updates from non-AOL services, like Flickr and MySpace.

New and the same

AOL's e-mail monitor widget, expanded. CNET

Since I was meeting with folks from AOL, I took the opportunity to scold them for the company's rip-off of the design of Yahoo's front page. SVP Rich Landsman acknowledged the similarities, but said that in order to form a full opinion, one should look not at the AOL and Yahoo pages right now, but rather watch the AOL site as it develops over time. We'll do that, and we look forward to watching the site diverge from its current copycat look and feel. But at Webware we still think that a home page is a giant branding statement, and that it should really say something other than, "Me too." And today, not three months from now.

Landsman did take pains to point out how the beta of AOL's new e-mail is unique. It's fast, he says, and has au courant Ajaxy features like endless scroll (no more paging through your in-box), and a configurable right-hand pane that can list contacts, events, or other data (more options will be added soon, he says). Also, he points to the "intro curtain" where AOL's top news stories are presented in a slide-down window when you log on, instead of a blocker screen that gets in your way, as on the new Yahoo mail service. He thinks this feature will be copied by others, and wanted to be sure I remembered where I saw it first. Noted.