‘Project Phoenix’: Aol tries to raise email from ashes

November 14, 2010, 5:00 PM UTC

Having lost the email crown long ago to Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, Aol wants to jump back into the fray with ‘Project Phoenix,’ a web-based client built from scratch.

Since Google (GOOG) first introduced Gmail back in 2004, it’s regularly updated the web-based email service with new features: increased storage space, a web-based mobile app, Google Chat and numerous interface tweaks among them. To catch up, Microsoft (MSFT) introduced the Windows Live Hotmail “Wave 4” update  last May, and Yahoo (YHOO) promises a significant Yahoo Mail update is in the works, too. Now, it’s Aol’s turn.

Despite having helped introduce email to the masses in the 1990s — remember when having that @aol.com domain seemed downright de rigeur? — Aol (AOL) now has a meager 30.8 million email users, at least compared with Microsoft (361 million global users), Yahoo (273 million), and Google  (193 million).

According to Brad Garlinghouse, Aol’s President of Consumer Applications, the company lost its way — and not just with email. But after more than a year in development, Garlinghouse, the guy at the helm of Aol’s most significant redesign since 2007, is ready to take the lid off “Project Phoenix,” which launches today.

“We think there’s an opportunity to redefine what email is for the consumer,” he told Fortune last week during a walkthrough. “I do think there’s [been] very little innovation in the email space. Since Gmail, really, nobody has done anything that made you think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.'”

To that end, Project Phoenix appears hellbent on two things: speed and integration. During our discussion, Garlinghouse repeatedly played up the new service’s near-instantaneous loading, especially when compared to Gmail.

Probably more interesting are the other features which include:

  • Aggregation of Aol, Yahoo, Gmail, Comcast, and other email accounts into one inbox a la iOS.
  • A “Quick Bar” or shortcut bar above the inbox with short email, IM, text, Facebook and Twitter status update capabilities.
  • Three inbox views — “expanded,” which allows viewing of the first few lines of each email, “compact” (think traditional), and and the Entourage-like “reading pane.”
  • Web browser-like tabs for switching between user inbox and messages.
  • A Mapquest sidebar adjacent to the email body that automatically detects addresses listed in open emails and offers directions
  • A photo sidebar that aggregates photo attachments.
  • New optional email domain names.

Other features rolling out soon will include further social network integration so users can check and manage Facebook and Twitter messages and contacts, Quick Bar file attachments, and news article suggestions based on email subjects.

In our testing, Project Phoenix proved speedy, though to be perfectly honest, I’ve never really had issues with Gmail in that department besides the occasional (and rare) service outage. The interface itself is super-clean, and I found little touches like the expanded inbox view and large photo thumbnail previews helpful. But the inability to use the email aggregation feature so I could hook up my Gmail account was a serious detractor from the experience. (According to Aol, that feature rolls out tomorrow.) Also, the company’s attempt at providing alternate domain names seems pretty lame. Besides “@aol.com”, user options will include @ygm (“You’ve Got Mail”), @games, @wow, and @love.com, all of which sound decidedly Web 1.0. I really can’t imagine people raring to sign up for addresses with “@love.com,” can you?

Below are screens from “Project Phoenix,” which should tide you over until you’re able to check it out for yourself — or at least until Facebook likely unveils its own web-based email client tomorrow.

Classic inbox view. Photo: Aol
Thumbnail previews with emailed photos aggregated on the right-hand side
A Mapquest sidebar detects addresses in a message and offers directions.