Aol Alto: You've Got a New Spin on Webmail

PHOTO: Aol released its new Alto mail service, which is functions as a mail app or portal, on Oct. 17, 2012.

"You've got mail!"

Ah, the words that so many of us associate with our first email accounts -- our Aol email accounts.

Of course, for most people on the Internet it has been ages since we actually heard that chime or associated Aol with modern-day email. While it was reported last year that a large percentage of Aol's profits still come from people who use Aol.com's webmail service, many have moved to newer webmail options (e.g. Gmail, Yahoo, or Apple's iCloud).

But today Aol is hoping those who haven't used Aol email in a decade will start again today. Its newest mail service is called Alto.

"Aol has been in the business a long time and has a lot of insights to do something more than what the other services are doing now," David Temkin, Senior Vice President of Mail for Aol, told ABC News in an interview. Temkin even joked about the connotation that Aol mail has these days: "We didn't want to alienate our current audience of Aol.com mail users. Even Gmail, though it launched in 2004, they too have gotten to a point where they are a legacy product," Temkin said.

So Aol decided to start from scratch. Alto isn't a new site to get a new email address, it's a site, Temkin says, that will help solve the "issues we all have with email now."

With Alto, which will be located at altomail.com, you can log in to your current Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud, or Aol email address and it will function like a web mail app, just like the one on your smartphone. Once you log in to your existing account, your email from it is ingested by Alto. There's not even an option to sign up for an @alto.com address.

But why use Alto over Gmail.com or Yahoo.com? Aol is hoping you'll switch over for a slew of new features it has built to better organize your inbox. The Alto interface is clean and shows two panes. On the left is your inbox and on the right are what Aol calls stacks. In those stacks, you can group emails according to their content.

For instance, you can set it up so all your notifications from Facebook or Twitter go into a "social stack." Or you can have all your email newsletters from retailers like J.Crew and Macy's go into the "retail stack."

There's even an automatic stack for your "attachments," so you can view all your photos or documents in one area without having to dig through your inbox. You can browse your photos like a gallery. The stacks feature is similar to what Microsoft introduced a few months ago with Outlook.com; both services offer to organize your inbox automatically so you don't have to do the constant deleting and sifting that takes so much time for email users.

But the company says there will be more than stacks to set Alto apart. Aol has improved the speed of its inbox search; it almost instantaneously brings up messages with the word or a contact you might be looking for. Additionally it has integrated social features, so when you look up a contact you can see their Twitter and Facebook information.

But for all the really attractive and useful features, there are some key ones missing in Alto. There are no threaded messages, a feature that groups your messages by conversation in your inbox. (You can see a threaded view of a particular email chain once you open the email, but it doesn't gather them together in the inbox.) That's one of the features that makes using Gmail.com and the others so appealing for many.

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