You’ve got mail — still? How AOL failed to catch Facebook

Oh, AOL. The Internet giant, in mid-turnaround under CEO Tim Armstrong, can’t help but seem a bit bumbly still.

Take, for example, its announcement that it had recently revamped its AOL Mail system as part of an overall makeover of the company’s products. It might have seen like a thunder-stealing move to unveil the new AOL Mail on Sunday, amid heavy buzz about a planned Facebook announcement Monday — had Facebook not revealed a messaging service that extends far beyond email.

The full AOL product will be released early next year, but interested users can sign up to request an invitation to the beta version today, said the company.

Dubbed Project Phoenix, the new AOL Mail has helped itself to some of Gmail’s more popular features–it lets you “star” messages or rank them by importance, as well as providing a simple, easy-to-read navigation bar at the top. It has a streamlined look that is a far cry from its traditionally busy design, with the aforementioned Quick Bar at the top of the page letting AOL’s users create texts, emails and instant messages quickly and easily.

It also now allows users to aggregate all their email in one place, linking all of a users’ other email addresses to their AOL account. Most importantly, perhaps, it has ways for users to shed their aol.com addresses for newer, perhaps less square, ones, such as wow.com, games.com, ygm.com and love.com.

A Smart View sidebar lets them keep content like photos or attachments in unopened messages, even if they’ve given them a quick glance to see what they contain, while you can now have several messages up and open at once without overshadowing the inbox.

In addition to keeping it competitive with faster, more nimble competitors like Google and Facebook, revamping their mail feature is crucial to the company’s bottom line: AOL said in a statement that AOL Mail still accounts for as much as 45 percent of the pageviews on the network.

“Email remains one of the most vital communication tools despite all of the new sites and apps available to consumers today,” said Brad Garlinghouse, president of AOL’s Consumer Applications Group. “There is still so much innovation to be done in the space and Project Phoenix is just the beginning.”

Still, despite AOL’s enthusiasm about the project, it is clear that the changes made through the hopefully named Phoenix are largely predictable, cosmetic and long overdue.

The new features also showed very little of the inventiveness and agility displayed today by its younger, far hipper rival Facebook — proving AOL obviously has a long way to go before it can convince an increasingly sophisticated user base that it isn’t your mother’s dial-up web connection anymore.


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