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Preview: AOL's Web mail with a dose of Silverlight

What's in store for AOL's next iteration of Mail?

We were lucky enough to get a chance to play with one of AOL's works-in-progress, a version of the company's popular Web mail service done entirely in Microsoft's Silverlight. It was briefly shown off at Mix '08 last week, but is not due to get into your hands for another month or two--where it will be an opt-in alpha before going out to everyone else when Silverlight 2.0 leaves beta.

In its current form it doesn't look a whole lot different from the regular version of AOL's mail. The big difference is in the new skinning technology and speed improvements. I've been playing with a private build of it, but it's noticeably snappier than the service's current in-box. Users will likely notice this the most when opening messages and moving them around, although it might also help in the built-in calendaring tool, which at the moment hasn't gone functional yet.

The other big difference is the skinning. In AOL's presentation last week, they showed off a new skin themed off of Bungie's Halo video game series for the upcoming title Halo Wars. Changing the entire skin of your e-mail in-box only takes a few seconds, and it's set up to work just like changing colors in the current iteration of AOL Mail. Roy Ben-Yoseph, the vice president of Mail for AOL told me his team is working on a way to let anyone design their own themes, complete with custom branding and color swapping that will let people custom tailor the way their mail looks. Presumably, they'll be able to swap between them as quickly as you can in the current build, as well as share them with others in a public directory.

Eye candy or not, the Silverlight version of AOL Mail is bringing to the table something I've wanted out of Gmail for a while now. While simplicity is great for day-to-day use, personalization and customization makes these Web apps feel a bit more human, which is refreshing coming from AOL.

The Silverlight version of AOL Mail can be skinned. Seen here is the Halo skin from Bungie, but users will be able to create their own as well. An alpha version of this should be out in the next month or two. Click to see the big version. CNET Networks