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This article was published on September 30, 2016

AOL’s ‘Alto’ aims to tame your unruly inbox, but completely misses the mark

AOL’s ‘Alto’ aims to tame your unruly inbox, but completely misses the mark
Bryan Clark
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Bryan Clark

Former Managing Editor, TNW

Bryan is a freelance journalist. Bryan is a freelance journalist.

For a tech reporter, the idea of inbox zero is a unicorn, a hoax, a cruel joke perpetrated by type-A personalities and productivity gurus. It simply doesn’t exist. The second I get my inbox clear, I’m met with a flood of new email and a lack of desire to actually clear it. Now, repeat this exercise for hundreds of messages a day.

Realizing my pain, and that of others who understand inbox zero is really just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to make US-manufacturing non-competitive, AOL came up with Alto.

If you’re looking for innovation, you should probably check with Google Inbox. Much of what Alto does well came from Google, it seems.


The Dashboard view is the exception. It surfaces messages that may be contextually relevant to the situation you find yourself in. A good example would be flight check-in reminder emails, hotel reservations or e-tickets to an event that day. Alto digs through your inbox and algorithmically sorts these into cards, which it then places in your Dashboard.

These cards, at least so far, are hit-or-miss. Some were relevant, some semi-relevant, and others had me scratching my head as to why they were there at all. It’s well-executed, although a bit misguided at times. It’s a feature with potential, and one that I hope gets better over time.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the end of things Alto does well. The inbox is the de facto swipe interface that most of us are used to, but it’s just as unruly as any other. The categorized sorting that Alto touts as the solution to cluttered inboxes falls well short of expectations and is, in a word, crap.



Ideally, each email gets sorted into a specific section for easy retrieval later. The sections — snoozed, personal, photos, files, unread, starred, shopping, travel, finance, and social — cause more problems than they solved. Personal, features dozens of email from (mostly) people I’ve never heard of. Photos has nothing recent, but a lot of images from 2012-2015. Files is mostly the same as photos. Shopping has none of my recent receipts, save one from eat24 after a recent Thai food delivery. Travel is devoid of anything, including two flights booked this month, both of which are still residing in my inbox.

I could go on, but you get the idea. These sections do nothing to ease the pain of an unruly inbox.

For me, Alto just isn’t there yet. It has all the potential in the world, and could truly be a game changer if it ever manages to harness it. Right now though, it’s better left to the tech pundits hyping it as the next big thing.

I’ll be switching back to Polymail now.

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