Back when the Internet was called DARPANet and no one had heard of Axe body wash, some said that “Only Nixon could go to China.” Nixon, an ardent anti-communist and anti-hipster, went to China with his trusty sidekick Henry Kissinger and met with Mao Zedong and the rest is history. Now China owns a wad of T-bills and we are reading this email on “phones” assembled in a country that a generation ago banned its own people from actually owning stuff, but which now manufactures devices that were “Designed In California,” intended for bourgeois bohemians. They get our money, we get technologically enslaved. Ironic.
Irony abounds today. Just look at AOL as one practical example. A couple of years ago (you’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten this) AOL released “Phoenix.” This bird – designed in Dulles – was meant to rise from the ashes to compete with Google’s Gmail. Instead, Phoenix didn’t reach escape velocity – much less mainstream consciousness – and it became a casualty before anyone had a chance to miss it.
But AOL didn’t stop there. In true entrepreneurial fashion, AOL pivoted Phoenix, and out of its ashes has risen “Alto.” AOL, the place where so many started their relationship with email, is betting that people want a new paradigm for email.
AOL might be on to something. Despite the popularity of social media, email remains the most popular platform for, well, pretty much everything online. With three billion users, it’s the largest social network and the one that remains universally interoperable; it’s the platform that no company can claim. And email is a habit that’s hard to break. According to our latest research, email is the first thing checked by 70 percent of all Internet users when they get up in the morning.
Alto doesn’t push any boundaries. Instead, it recognizes that people use email to do a set of similar tasks, but they rarely use folders (we are not all GTD fans). Cleverly, the default settings of Alto organize your mail into “stacks,” such as Daily Deals, Photos, Attachments, Social Messaging, and Retail messages. This methodology is referred to as “Visual Relief.” Think Pinterest.
Of course, Alto isn’t just stacks. It lets you work with multiple email accounts (AOL Mail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Mac/me.com mail accounts) as long as they are IMAP compatible.
One of the most interesting features is the Xobni-like capabilities that allow a user to look at a list of their contacts and view their recent activity, messages, or perhaps their latest tweet or post.
Don’t get too excited. The product won’t be available until next year. So Gmail will hold on to its recently anointed status as number one webmail client for six more months. But if you love email – and if you’re still reading, you know you do – you should keep your eye on Alto, and get an invite if you can. Because if Nixon can go to China, it only makes sense that AOL can go back to email and make it a success.