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AT&T launches its own browser, Pogo. Surprise: It doesn't suck.

Pogo's slick graphical view doesn't get in your way, thank goodness

The obvious first question one asks the AT&T execs when beginning a discussion of Pogo, the company's new Web browser, is "What is AT&T doing getting into the browser market?" The answer you get is, at first, amusing. It's a chance to build "another relationship with the customer," they say. They also tell you it could be a great conduit for AT&T messages (e.g., brand or product advertising). Sounds like the makings for a truly awful product, does it not?

Video demo is embedded at the end of this post.

But here's the weird thing: Pogo is not awful. Putting aside what might happen to the product should the AT&T brand Nazis get hold of it, it is, even in the early beta I got access to, a solid, usable Web browser.

Pogo is a combination of the Mozilla browser code base with technology from Vizible, which AT&T has invested in. As a basic Web browser, it works as expected. Type a URL and it loads. No drama.

Things only get weird when you dive into the browser bookmarks or history, or use the multi-home-page feature called Springboard.

The best use of Pogo's graphical chops is in the history viewer, which lets you smoothly scroll backward and forward through snapshots of your visited Web pages.

For these three functions, Pogo puts snapshot images, which it calls "cells," into a slick 3D rendering engine. In the bookmark feature, for example, you can thumb through categories like flipping through index cards. When you zoom into a category, you see all your site bookmarks as snapshots of your pages, not just page titles.

The history function also uses visual snapshots. I found this very useful. Seeing your previously visited sites in graphic format added a lot of context that's missing if all you're looking at is a stream of titles.

You can set the browser's home page to be your "springboard," which is a grid of cells for sites you visit a lot. It's a little better than having your browser start with several home pages in separate tabs, although it's not a big enough feature that anyone should switch browsers for it.

You can fly through your bookmarks and the "collections" they are categorized in.

Pogo is a tabbed browser, but instead of using text tabs it uses little page snapshots. This may appeal to some people; I didn't find it much of an advantage.

All cells, be they on the Springboard, the history, or bookmarks, can be tagged and moved around (you can drag history items to the Springboard, for example). The browser also has a search feature that scans for pages living in the the three sections just mentioned. For Web search, Pogo remembers the pages you visit from its integrated search engine (Google, currently), and saves them as cells, too.

Unrelated to its 3D features, the browser also supports mouse gestures for navigation, a fun feature that could become very useful if Pogo is ported to touch-screen mobile phones. (See also: Opera.)

Pogo does not support add-ons or plug-ins yet. Vizible built the browser with the older Firefox 2 code from Mozilla. It is waiting for the Firefox 3 code, which it will re-configure its product in. Vizible will support plug-ins shortly after that.

While I've derided 3D interfaces in the past, the truth is that using the graphics power of a local computer can make for more engaging and easier-to-understand interfaces. See PicLens, a recently released plug-in photo browser, and also Flip3D in Vista, and Time Machine and CoverFlow on the Mac. Finally, Picasa has a timeline view that's very similar to the Collections view in Pogo.

Pogo's 3D interface works because it doesn't get in your face most of the time, and when it does, it's in functions where using visual devices to jog your memory can make a positive difference in your productivity in the app.

That said, I do not expect Pogo to take the world by storm. It is a nice, slick, graphical browser. It's probably an easier product to teach than the other browsers. I wouldn't be surprised to see it show up in the mail in AT&T DSL bills, or maybe even on some new computers. And that will be just fine. But it's still weird that AT&T is in the browser business, and I don't think this product will win the hearts and minds of people already accustomed to Firefox or Internet Explorer. Pogo is quite good, but it's not so good that current heavy browser users are going to feel that they need to switch.

The pre-public version of Pogo that I tried was too slow to live with, but AT&T is planning on opening up a private beta in May with a newer build. We'll have some invites to the beta to give out when that happens. Open availability is still three or four months out.