AOL is rolling out a new feature on its AOL Mail product: a plug-in architecture that lets users select from a library of mini-apps they can display in the right-hand sidebar of their AOL Mail session.
There are the usual suspects in the lineup: Stock price and news reading widgets, an AIM instant messenger widget (which makes a lot of sense), AOL Radio, and so on. The lineup, though, also includes widgets that let you see your GMail and Yahoo Mail in-boxes. This means you can use AOL Mail to keep tabs on messages coming at you from other sources, which could be sort of cool.
However, the mail widget integration is incomplete. If you click on a message to read it, AOL Mail has to open up a new browser window and jumps you to the message you want in the other system. So it's not full integration; AOL Mail can't actually read the messages from these other services. GMail, on the other hand, works well as a clearing house for e-mail from any other service that supports POP or IMAP access. (If you want to read your non-AOL e-mail accounts within the AOL e-mail experience, you can do so in the desktop app version of AOL.)
That snag aside, the widget experience is solid. The library of widgets is interesting, and the widgets themselves seem to function well. The platform is semi-open to developers. Documentation is freely available and the architecture is Open Social. However, developers have to submit widgets for approval to get them added to the lineup. Roy Ben-Yoseph, vice president of AOL Mail, told me the reason for this is to ensure a quality user experience as well as to make sure the widgets are breaking through any security or privacy walls in the e-mail app.
Also new on AOL Mail: themes. "People love them," Ben-Yoseph says.
The company is working with Funambol to make sure mobile users can access all their AOL Mail data, including messages, calendar items, and to-dos.
The big question ivory-tower journalists like me have, though, is this: Does anyone use AOL for mail anymore? Ben-Yoseph says that the service has 48 million monthly active users in the U.S., and more worldwide. He says a lot of new users gravitate to AOL Mail. Honestly, I barely get e-mail from AOL users anymore, maybe two or three messages a week. For those of you out there on the platform, the new widgets are pretty nice. And given the numbers, developers might want to give the platform a serious look as well.