You’ve got more mail: AOL launches web email client Alto

AOL(s AOL), the company that provided millions with their first email service, is back again with a new web email product called Alto that it hopes will give it some email relevance again. Alto, which is in limited preview, doesn’t require a new email address but aggregates email from Gmail(s GOOG), Yahoo(s YHOO), AOL and Apple’s iCloud(s AAPL) and helps users filter and organize their messages.

That might not get your wheels turning but AOL is pinning its hopes on slick design with a visual organization system called Stacks, which allows users to filter their emails and more easily consume specific sets of emails through images. The system puts a user’s pictures, attachments, social networking messages, daily deal and retailer emails into separate stacks that can be consumed through thumbnails or larger images.

Users can further filter a stack to see, for example, pictures from certain stacks, people or accounts or view by date. And they can easily download pictures or attachments from stack view or share content to Twitter, Facebook(s FB), LinkedIn(s LNKD) or by email. Users can also create their own stacks by dragging over emails from their list view or creating filters for sender, recipient or keywords. And with any stack, they can choose to have future emails go directly into a stack and skip the inbox.

There’s also a people tab that lets you call up recent contacts and see recent emails exchanged between you and that person. A search tool also pulls up quick results on emails, pictures and attachments.

Some observations about Alto:

  • It’s got a clean design that minimizes the list view and lets you easily jump into stacks or see a larger view of emails alongside the list.
  • The stacks are helpful to see some past images and visually browse my daily deals quickly. Emails from retailers are stripped of header information and just show the HTML image so you can view them almost like pages in a catalogue.
  • The photos stack was wonky in my tests, showing me more recent pictures but struggling to retrieve older images. It’s nice to see some older pictures I had forgotten but I don’t share or receive a lot of personal photos so I’m not sure how often I’ll turn to this stack.
  • Having a visual way to view daily deals is helpful, but it usually just reminds me that I should probably just unsubscribe to most deals altogether.
  • The Skip to Inbox feature is also helpful in that I do feel like I have a purer email list to work with.

Josh Ramirez, AOL’s senior director of product at AOL Mail, said Alto is meant to modernize the email experience and make it more enjoyable. He said using images and a very visual style accomplishes that. At times, it feels like the latest example of the Pinterest approach to design being applied to another app.

The app is built in HTML5 and is optimized for desktop use but will also work on tablets. Future native apps for tablets and smartphones could come if necessary. Alto doesn’t sport banner ads but AOL is looking at monetizing through promoted deals in the deals stack, a separate offers stack or enabling people to buy directly from a deals or retailer stack. The goal is to have a public version of the service available in the first quarter next year.

AOL will probably never regain its email dominance, but I appreciate the effort to update the experience. Email is really a drudgery so any attempt to fix it is welcome. I’m not sure the facelift and better organization Alto provides is enough to get people to away from their favorite email client. But I’m hoping other email providers take note of some of these ideas.