Email. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the most efficient means of communication or the bane of the web’s existence.
Whatever your opinion, no one can deny that the email paradigm hasn’t changed much since its mainstream inception nearly two decades ago. Gmail is currently the king of email, not in sheer numbers, but in terms of feature set and functionality. That feature set, though, is mostly laid on top of a stagnant interface.
Email is certainly ripe for disruption, and AOL would like to throw its hat in the ring. AltoMail is the company’s latest offering, and it certainly presents a novel way to think about the way we interact with our email.
Thankfully, using AltoMail does not require a great commitment- just sign up with one of your existing email accounts (AOL, Yahoo!, Gmail, or iCloud). AltoMail will import your messages and, if you use Gmail, duplicate your labels as folders. It’s a fairly seamless transition; it simply feels like giving your existing email a facelift. Kudos here to the AltoMail team for negating any sort of migration woes or learning curve.
Once your messages are imported, you’ll be presented with the ‘homepage,’ which is where you’ll first notice the drastic differences between traditional email and AOL’s offering. Instead of listing your messages, you’re presented with ‘stacks,’ which are automatically created for you (you can create your own). My default stacks include photos, daily deals, social notifications, attachments, and starred messages. It’s not clear whether these are default for everyone, or if there’s a bit of personalization involved.
Opening the social notifications tab presents an interesting breakdown of the messages listed in that category:
The photos stack is quite interesting. It extracts photos from every email, presenting them all in a grid view. This is the first real instance of a desperately needed change: we all have so many photos in our email, and surprisingly, no one has yet offered to do anything with them. The only downside here is that images collected from email newsletters and the like are also included.
The attachments stack, of course, is quite similar, displaying your attachments in grid view:
The ‘people’ tab displays status updates from sources you’ve connected — currently Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn integration is offered — but the timeline seems to offer only one-way interaction: you can view updates, but can’t interact with them, with the exception of clicking on a profile to open a new browser tab.
The built-in search mechanism is quite useful: not only does it auto-suggest messages and contacts based on your query, but also photos and attachments, displayed inline in a convenient pop-up:
Any stack you open stays open in a tab, giving you quicker access in a sort of tabbed browsing mimicry of modern browsers.
In the left sidebar, there are links to Google Drive and Google Calendar, with a message that AltoMail’s own calendar is ‘coming soon.’ The Google Drive link, as far as I can tell, is fairly inexplicable, but would seem to suggest some sort of future integration.
The message view is cleaner than most apps, and seems to utilize screen real estate much better than most. The same can be said of the overall view, which uses a left-to-right flow to better adapt adapt to widescreen monitors than would a top-to-bottom approach.
The same attention to detail can be seen in the message view and the compose box, which presents itself as a small pop-up when clicked, but also can be taken fullscreen with the click of the mouse.
A huge drawback to AltoMail is its current lack of mobile support: there are no native clients for mobile devices, and opening the app in a mobile browser presents an error. Fortunately, though, since AltoMail is only a skin of sorts for your current email, you can still use your client of choice on mobile and AltoMail on your desktop.
It remains to be seen whether AltoMail will change the email game. It certainly has a long way to go- some core features that many users rely on are missing (for instance, not being able to send email from a secondary email address, as I do in Gmail, is a dealbreaker for me). Still, the mode of thinking is a very welcome change. The photos view, the comprehensive search, and the social integration are, to say the least, welcome features in an email client.
I’ll be keeping a close eye on the work this team is doing. So far, it’s not enough to replace Gmail, but I’m quite impressed, nonetheless.
AltoMail is currently in private beta- head on over to sign up.
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