AOL launched a new email product in beta over the weekend.It’s called Project Phoenix and the name is appropriate.
Over the past few years, AOL e-mail turned into a joke.
While Gmail and Yahoo Mail pushed out new tools and features, AOL lagged behind to the point where admitting you have an aol.com address became like admitting you still use dialup.
This lack of innovation – combined with a crushing amount of ds – lead to an exodus of users from this service. AOL can’t afford to have users quit its email product, because AOL is trying to turn itself into a media company and AOL Mail drives a TON of traffic to AOL Media.
How much? Depends who you ask.
AOL Media people say AOL Mail users account for as little as 10% of AOL Media’s uniques and ~12% of its pageviews. The product side people — defending their turf — say AOL Mail drives as much as 25% of AOL Media’s pageviews and 50% of AOL’s total pageviews. Either way, its a lot.
So, in launching a new email product, AOL had to do something drastic.
Over the weekend, it launched Project Phoenix, an appropriately-named new webmail client.
Phoenix is currently in limited beta, and we got to try it out this weekend. Here’s what we thought:
- The design is smooth and open, almost Gmail-like. There are three main viewing panes: one for folders, one for viewing e-mails, and one for viewing attached content such as photos. There are also some nice customised views, letting you view the entire e-mail in a pane view (like Outlook) or snippets (like Gmail).
- Importing other e-mail accounts was disabled this weekend, but we did view a video demo of the feature from one of AOL’s engineers. It looked simple enough: just type in the credentials from your Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or any other e-mail account and Phoenix will load your inbox. You can view all your accounts in one pane, or toggle between individual services.
- The tabbed inbox allows you to have multiple messages or folders open at once. It’s a fresh idea for webmail services and excellent for multitasking.
- It’s fast. Messages and searches load quickly. AOL claims they clocked cached e-mails loading in 1.5 seconds, about twice as fast as Gmail.
- The Quickbar let’s you compose a quick e-mail, send a free text message, and update your AIM status or social networks. It’s part of AOL’s new Lifestream service that’s compatible with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, and Delicious. Our update pushed through seamlessly to Twitter and Foursquare, but not Facebook. We’ll chalk that up to a bug in the preview version.
- The Smartview pane is a clever way to view media attached in e-mails. Photos appear in a gallery view, which is much more manageable than viewing and downloading them from individual messages. The Smartview will also automatically display the Mapquest location of addresses mentioned in an e-mail. AOL says they’d like to add support for document and video previews too.
- Conversation history is a nice answer for those who don’t like Gmail’s threaded conversations. When you open an e-mail, you can click through the previous messages in the thread from the Smartview pane. We liked this new approach, but hope AOL eventually offers a threaded view too.
Phoenix offers nice alternatives to some of the biggest problems with e-mail today: managing multiple accounts, sending quick replies, and sorting through attachments. The social media integration is nice, but unnecessary and gimmicky. This product has a lot of potential, but it may be too late to win back those who have moved on from AOL over the years.
AOL Phoenix should be available to the public early next year, the company says. You can click here to request an invite.
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