November 15, 2010

AOL Opens New ‘Project Phoenix’ E-mail Beta

In an ongoing effort to overhaul its image, AOL has unveiled a beta version of its new AOL Web-based mail -- named Project Phoenix -- which will include special features to simplify communications.

"We wanted to start from scratch and build a new product and free ourselves from requirements to build something that was similar to what we had," Fletcher Jones, senior director of AOL mail, told the LA Times. "So we identified three key points to address in the new application."

Project Phoenix will not even closely resemble the current outdated AOL mail. The new system will be able to do a number of new things. One, it can combine other email accounts into one easy to manage account. Two, it will allow for quick multimedia messaging, and three, will offer the chance for users to grab a new username if they want one.

It will also come equipped with fresh tools, like Smart View, that will search your inboxes and amass interesting info in a box to the right. Say, if someone messages you an address, Smart View can preview a map to locate it. It can also display a thumbnail gallery of all your photo attachments from your inboxes. It will also be able to display a conversation thread much like a forum thread.

The struggling Internet company has been looking into ways to restore its former standing as a top Internet provider. It is also looking into ways to regain traffic and advertising revenue. The company redesigned its homepage pushing for more original content and it recently acquired influential technology blog TechCrunch.

AOL hopes Project Phoenix will attract new users, along with former ones, back to the site. "AOL is really about new content. But building great content isn't enough unless you can make people aware of it. E-mail is the anchor of our ecosystem," Jones added.

Besides allowing users to link other existing email accounts to AOL email, the company is also planning to bring Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn messages into the mix in the future.

An Associated Press (AP) reporter who recently tried the early beta version of Project Phoenix, said it felt sluggish. But AOL said its tests show that the inbox page loads about twice as fast as Google's Gmail inbox.

Advertising is also very much absent from the new design. Jones said AOL is working on other ways to make money from the free email service because the old email model -- which had a towering ad that dominated the right-hand of the screen -- was not very user-friendly.

Jones did not comment on exactly what AOL's plan for making money will be, but one tactic could be placing links to top AOL stories inside the inbox. Content sites from AOL are much more ad-heavy.

"We're a different company than we were a year ago," Jones said in an interview with AP. "The prior administration had priorities on revenue versus audience growth. Our priorities are on audience growth."

Less than a month ago, AOL revamped the main AOL.com homepage with more white space, more trendy logo art, bolder photos and icons and a stronger focus on content from its network of websites and blogs.

AOL Mail, which accounts for nearly 45 percent of AOL's total page views, is an important way to help users find all the new content.

The company plans to give existing customers the option to use the Project Phoenix system, and is providing live chat and other 24-hour customer service and support to help users with the transition. AOL has yet to come up with a firm plan for switching everyone over to the new design.

The new email program will be offered to a limited number of users for now, and then everyone beginning next year.

For those interested in trying out Project Phoenix can go to phoenix.aol.com to request an invitation. A wider-based beta phase rolls out early next year, but no definite time is set right now for a launch of the final product, said Jones.


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