AOL’s Alto Aims to Tidy Up Email Clutter

AOL is rolling out a cloud-based service, Alto, designed to help email users de-clutter their messy in-boxes.

AOL, which offered one of the first email clients adopted by the mainstream, isn’t trying to draw customers away from popular services like Gmail or Yahoo Mail. Instead, it is offering an application that focuses on organization by design, integrating with other mail services to help organize the content they deliver.

Alto will gather a user’s emails from Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, or .Mac into a single location and then separate those emails into different stacks, the same way people often separate their physical mail into piles.

Users can drag items to create custom stacks, then prioritize them according to senders, recipients, keywords or other factors. Alto automatically organizes emails with social notifications, photos and attachments into their own pre-loaded stacks. It also directs daily deal emails from sites such as Groupon directly into their own stacks.

By connecting with their Facebook or Twitter accounts, users can see contacts’ updates inside Alto and post photos directly from the email client to social networks.

The service is currently available as a limited preview.

AOL did not respond to our request for further details.

Calling All Organizers

AOL isn’t the first company hoping to capitalize on a population fed up with cluttered in-boxes, Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld.

“People keep trying to clean up the overloaded in-box without much success,” Sterling told TechNewsWorld. “There have been numerous, mostly unsuccessful, attempts to bring intelligence and advanced functionality to the problem of automatically prioritizing and sorting email.”

People’s use of email has changed radically over the years, even though the core application hasn’t.

AOL would know best how it’s changed, said tech analyst and consultant Jeff Kagan. The company was at the forefront of email adoption in the 1990s. It still has a core base of email users, but is hoping Alto can be the key to remaining relevant.

“They are still the legacy email application for so many users,” Kagan told TechNewsWorld. “This is a solid base that keeps them in business. They just have to create the next wave to grow on, and that has been the problem over the years.”

Next Big Email Client?

Despite all of its innovations, it remains to be seen how much success AOL will have with Alto. As annoying as a messy in-box might be, the hassle of learning and setting up a new application might mean slow adoption, said Sterling.

“The concept of stacks in AOL’s Alto is quite promising,” he said. “However, it’s not clear that people will see a need for a new Web-based email client. Most people will see it as either unnecessary or redundant. Too many features or too much sophistication will also scare most people away.”

A relatively small but loyal core of users might be all AOL is hoping it will achieve with Alto, though, Kagan pointed out.

“I don’t think AOL has the success of Google or Apple in mind,” he said. “Rather, I think AOL is looking for niches to be successful in. If they can be No. 1 in a few niches, they can do very well. Alto is AOL looking at the marketplace for an opportunity.”

To capitalize on that opportunity, AOL needs to make sure customers know how valuable it can be, Sterling emphasized.

“In order to gain adoption for Alto, AOL will need to focus on a few highly useful features and aggressively educate people about their benefits,” Sterling predicted. “Otherwise Alto will go the way of Google Wave, which was another recent effort to bring email into the 21st Century — and which failed because it was too feature rich and complex.”

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