Alto is AOL's new mail venture, in which the company gives up on getting people to have AOL.com e-mail addresses. "We found that nobody wants another email address," Senior Director of Product for AOL Mail and Alto Joshua Ramirez told The Verge's Ellis Hamburger. So AOL is heretofore giving up on its You've Got Mail brand, which, frankly, is a smart move. No one is looking to change their email address to anything new. AOL has such a teeny-tiny user-base (and shrinking!) when compared to the others, according to these 2011 Comscore stats.
Still, AOL is losing at something which is still the most popular activity to do on the Internet. Instead of revamping something that will never be popular—the social cachet alone of having an AOL.com email address will keep that dream dead—it is moving into a new space: E-mail clients. "People have multiple email addresses, and they want to get it in one spot, so we went back to the drawing board and came up with something we think is game-changing." This game changer, much like Sparrow or Apple Mail, "fixes" e-mail which many people have declared broken.
While many people yearn for a better email client, no one has owned the space yet. This is what the current marketshare looks like, according to Litmus: Outlook, the iPhone app and Yahoo Mail still rule.
While Outlook has a pretty large share of users, it's not the most beloved of experiences. Sparrow, which pares down email to a Twitter-like experience, has many fans, but its fate is uncertain since Google bought it. The iPhone mail app only works on iPhones, obviously. There's a lot of opportunity here. Let's see how AOL does.
For now, Alto is invite only. But once users link up their current email address(es), the program removes clutter with what it calls stacks, pushing certain types of email into different categories that Businessweek's Sam Grobart equates with sheets "of paper that are loosely grouped on the home screen," which you can see in the photo below.
For people who don't want that, however, there is a setting that removes the stacks. It also imports some social media stuff, like Facebook and Twitter and has some other nice features, like "snooze," which will push certain messages to the top of the inbox, as a reminder to answer them. It also has analytics. Grober found mail came in faster than his native Gmail, which is pretty impressive. Otherwise, it works like any other mail client, pulling in email to one place, accessible from the Internet.
Though it has a nicer overall look than, say, the Outlook web client, none of the reviewers sound too jazzed about it. "There's no threaded conversation view (a deal-breaker for Alto, but I'm told that it's coming soon), no mobile site (also coming), and the app is just plain over-styled — from its color palette to the imposing font it uses for senders and email subject lines," writes Hamburger. "It may not appeal to power users," added Grober. For starters, all that white space and those oversize fonts mean you see fewer messages per screen than on most e-mail services’ standard interfaces." But, this thing doesn't roll out officially until the beginning of 2013, giving AOL plenty of time to make improvements.