It's probably the last company you'd expect to make using e-mail a better experience, but with its all-new e-mail client Alto, AOL is setting out to make your inbox a more organized and happier place than it's ever been.
Alto, which launches into a private beta this morning, is a client that works with Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, and .Mac mail accounts. It's designed with the idea that since 95 percent of the general population doesn't use folders, many people are suffering from "inbox fatigue" as hundreds or thousands of messages flood in and pile up.
With Alto, AOL is attempting a new approach to e-mail organization, one based on the way that people sift through their snail mail -- putting different categories of mail into their own piles. The idea, said Josh Ramirez, senior director of product management in AOL's Mail group, is that a happy inbox can come from what is being termed "visual relief."
Upon setting up Alto -- which can be linked to, and take action on, as many as five separate email accounts at a time, users will see a column on the left representing their inbox, alongside five default tiles, or what are being called "stacks." These stacks are at the core of the Alto experience, as this is where distinct types of messages will be filtered and stored.
While that sounds much like a standard e-mail folder type of arrangement, it's the visual element of Alto that sets it apart from most other email client approaches.
The five default stacks are for photos, attachments, daily deals, social notifications, and messages from retailers. And users can set up additional stacks as they desire, or change the default five. The idea is that once someone has set up their Alto account, the client will understand where most messages are meant to go.
At its heart, Alto is about automatically and efficiently keeping unnecessary messages out of the inbox column. To help with that, the system gives users a way to identify the kinds of messages that don't need to be anywhere but in a stack and choose the "skip your inbox" feature for them. That way, when, say, a message arrives from Groupon or LivingSocial, it goes directly into the appropriate stack, skipping the inbox altogether.
This, of course, is very much like standard e-mail filtering, but Alto takes that concept and makes it visual by allowing users to click on any stack and instantly get a tiled view of everything in it. So, by clicking on their daily deals stack, for example, a user would instantly be looking at a screen full of images, each one representing a different deal offer.
Alto is designed to learn quickly where messages are meant to go. So when a user drags a message into a stack, Alto can be expected to take the same kind of action the next time a similar message arrives.
With photographs, the user could click on a stack and see all pictures that have come in, organized chronologically, and can even choose a slideshow of those images. The same goes for attachments: clicking on that stack provides a visual look at each attachment that has come in, something Ramirez said could be useful if someone is trying to find a specific invoice, say, but can't remember who sent it.
And just because a message is put in a stack doesn't mean it has to disappear from the inbox. By turning off Skip your Inbox on messages of a certain type or from a specific person, those e-mails would live in both the inbox and the appropriate stack.
Ramirez noted the necessity of keeping track of messages that may not be top of mind when they arrive. That's why Alto has what's called the "snooze" feature, a tool that lets users select when they'd like a message to appear at the top of their inbox. Until that point, the message disappears. When it re-appears, it will stay at the top of the inbox until a user deletes it, hits snooze again, or takes some other kind of action.
Social and analytics
One thing AOL is trying to do with Alto is give users an instant sense of meaning about what's going on in their e-mail accounts. One way it does that is by offering an analytics tab for any stack.
This is designed to give an at-a-glance look at what's in a particular stack -- for example, a graphic showing the proportion of messages from each sender, the total number of messages in the stack, the number of current conversations, and more.
At the same time, the service also has a social element. Users can look at a list of all people who have sent them messages, and by clicking on any of those people, see a profile including their most recent tweet, their contact information, the stacks their messages are in, and people they have in common.
Alto also makes it easy to share photographs -- when looking at any picture in the photos stack, users can click on a share button and quickly send it out via social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
AOL knows that a service like Alto can only be widely adopted if most of its kinks are worked out in advance of general release. That's why the service is launching into private beta, and Ramirez said that it's not likely to be publicly available until at least the middle of the first quarter of next year, but it will be accepting requests to join the service in the interim.
At the beginning, Alto will be free, but eventually, AOL expects to monetize the service by inserting ads or possibly selling a premium version, or both.
The service is designed to work in any full-sized browser, and AOL has also optimized an HTML5 version for Apple's iPad.