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You’ve Got Mail Overload

AOL tries to solve “in-box fatigue” by reimagining e-mail organization.
October 18, 2012

Back in the 1990s, AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” greeting was synonymous with e-mail. That association faded as users moved on to mail systems from Google, Microsoft, and others, but AOL hasn’t given up on the medium.

Its new focus? So-called “in-box fatigue”—the overwhelming feeling of weariness you get when staring at an in-box overflowing with daily deals, newsletters, social-network alerts, and spam, not to mention the occasional personal message. On Thursday, AOL announced a new online service called Alto that attempts to solve this problem by allowing users to aggregate several e-mail accounts and sort different types of messages into stacks, much as you might sort snail mail on your kitchen counter.

Since Alto is simply organizing your e-mail, it doesn’t require you to set up a new e-mail account. It supports Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, and iCloud accounts.

Other companies have tried to improve e-mail through features that let users sort conversations by importance or search messages in real time. Yet AOL—an iconic brand from the early days of the Web that has struggled to revive its reputation and business as its legacy dial-up Internet business dies—hopes its particular features and design, combined with its experience dealing with e-mail, will set Alto apart.

Josh Ramirez, senior director of product for AOL Mail and Alto, says the service was built by the same team that built the company’s Project Phoenix e-mail product, which launched several years ago to replace AOL Mail but didn’t really catch on. Existing AOL Mail users felt it was too different, while nonusers didn’t see it as compelling enough to switch to, he says.

The team behind Phoenix started talking to consumers and found that while people like having several e-mail accounts stream into a single box, it also leads to organization problems. Alto’s solution is to give each user default “stacks” that automatically corral photos, attachments, daily deals, social-network notifications, and retailer messages. These sit to the right of your normal stream of messages and can be set up so the messages that land in them never hit the main Alto in-box (they will still land in the in-box of the individual e-mail address they were sent to). Users can create new stacks by dragging and dropping messages, and edit stacks so they include specific recipients, senders, and subjects.

Alto’s other features include real-time e-mail search that pulls up messages, photos, attachments, and contacts as you type. A “snooze” feature allows you to set a future time at which you’ll be bugged to respond to a particular e-mail. 

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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