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I’d like to see e-mail systems equipped with just two buttons: Keep and Delete. Pressing either button would move a message out of the inbox. Press Keep and it would be filed in an intelligent database that would automatically characterize all the many different ways you might want to index it. Mailboxes would become keywords. If you wanted to see all the messages sent by coworkers about the Agamemnon project, say, all you’d need to do would be to ask for them-the database would automatically figure out who your coworkers were and which messages related to the project. Software would make such determinations on the basis of mailing patterns, subject lines, and word analysis.

The Delete button would not immediately trash the message. Rather, it would file it away in the same database and schedule the message for erasure after perhaps one week. This would make it possible for you to change your mind and recover a message you had deleted. How many times have you wished you had that power? Researchers are actively exploring some of these ideas.

Earlier this year at the TR100 conference at MIT, Richard F. Rashid, senior vice president for research at Microsoft, demonstrated the Personal Map being developed in Microsoft’s labs. Analyzing Rashid’s stored e-mail, the Personal Map automatically identified the various projects in which he was involved and grouped his e-mail accordingly. The system even identified the e-mail Rashid had exchanged with his contractor regarding renovations to Rashid’s house.

Anyone who wants this sort of technology today, though, would need to turn to the world of open-source software- specifically the Evolution e-mail program being developed by Ximian, a startup in Boston. Evolution automatically indexes all the e-mail it receives, making blindingly fast searches possible. It then lets the user organize messages into virtual folders, or “vFolders,” which automatically update themselves every time a new message arrives. For example, you could have one vFolder with all the mail from your mother and another with every message containing the word “aardvark.” If your mother sent you a message about her recent trip to southern Africa, that message might show up in both places. It’s a good first step, but picking the right searches for these vFolders still needs too much thinking: the computer should do it automatically.

The dramatic success of Google, the popular Web search engine, has demonstrated that the key to solving information overload is a clean interface combined with killer search capabilities. It’s time for the world of e-mail to catch up.

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