On the surface, the AOL Social Mail Gadget offers users a chance to immediately know if one of the five people in their "A-List" has sent them a message and to see the text, photos or video in that message -- all without overwhelming whatever applications that user has open.
Under the covers, meanwhile, the gadget stands as an early, and successful, example of what developers can do with both Silverlight and the Windows Vista Sidebar.
"We used this opportunity, as it relates to Silverlight, to look at building an innovative product that interfaces with AOL Mail," said Roy Ben-Yoseph, vice president of AOL Email. "The Vista sidebar is now the new minimize state. We used the [Sidebar] Gadget to build something different than what's been done before."
The Windows Vista Sidebar runs along the side of the screen, occupying a width of 130 pixels. This necessitated a balance between maintaining the gadget's themes and still showing users the right amount of an email message, said Eric Hoffman, one of the AOL Social Mail Gadget's developers.
A set of APIs for dynamic HTML are built into the sidebar, along with support for common mouse events.
This DHTML supports led the AOL development team to place a Silverlight player within the sidebar to display keyframes, animation and the condensed version of the "flyout." The flyout is the list of mail from a user's A-List; when a user expands the flyout, three more Silverlight players appear to list new mail messages and preview their contents.
"Silverlight is really strong in playback," said Eric Hoffman, one of the AOL Social Mail Gadget's developers. "It does a much better job of rendering than the browser does."
The advantages of using Silverlight and Blend to develop the gadget were quite clear, Hoffman said, as the entire project was finished in the four weeks leading up to MIX07.
"We see the tools as a tech revolution," he added. "There was a synergy between designers and engineers that I have never seen before. That really shortened the development cycle."
The development group also benefited from extensive Silverlight support from Microsoft and, admittedly, "crazy hours" from the group itself and from its external design firm. But the Silverlight and Blend tools made the endeavor fly by, Hoffman said: "Everyone had fun working on it. That makes it that much more worthwhile."
The AOL Social Mail Gadget is currently available as a preview from the AOL Mail Development Community Page.
Right now the gadget has two themes for the flyout list -- guitars and surfboards -- and both additional skins and the ability to create custom skins are in the works. The development group may also create a widget for Windows XP and for the Mac, depending "on the buzz and the resources," Hoffman said.