To many people, e-mail feels like a relic of the early years of the Internet. Messages show up in a user’s in-box sorted chronologically, not by relevance; users need to categorize messages on their own; and in most cases, e-mail content–from contact information to data embedded in messages–is difficult to use outside of the e-mail program.
In an attempt to solve some of these problems, Yahoo is integrating a number of new features into its in-box, a move that it hopes will help make its e-mail service more relevant in an age of messages sent via chat programs, cell phones, and social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. In a demonstration on Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang highlighted some of their company’s research. In a simple example, they showed how interactions between their e-mail program and features such as a mapping tool could make it easy to organize a social event.
Yahoo isn’t alone in its desire to reshape e-mail. Startups Xobni (see “A New Look for Outlook”) and Twine (see “The Semantic Web Goes Mainstream”) are offering services that can help people better organize their e-mail. Xobni, which offers a nice search tool, sorts through e-mail data to reveal hidden social networks and can find and highlight a contact’s phone numbers within the body of an e-mail. Twine is more of an information ecosystem that organizes e-mail, Web-browsing history, documents, and contacts, making it easier to find useful information and identify social connections.
Yahoo hopes that by adding new features, it can make its Mail application–which, with more than 200 million users, is the most popular Web-based mail service–a way for people to do more than check e-mail and delete spam. One new feature the company is working on will allow Yahoo Mail users to import lists of friends from some of their social networks. (In the demo, the social-networking sites MySpace and LinkedIn were the examples.) New Yahoo Mail software, Yang explained, will look through these networks and determine how often a user contacts particular people. From this and other data, the in-box will automatically sort your incoming e-mails based on the strength of the sender’s relationship to you. For instance, e-mails from the people you communicate with most frequently over MySpace or other services will be at the top of the in-box. “The other e-mails are still there,” says Yang; they just don’t appear at the top of the list.
During their event-organization demonstration, the Yahoo researchers showed how the in-box automatically grouped together a series of e-mails from Yang’s contacts that contained suggestions for dinner that night after the conference; the program autonomously labeled the group “CES dinner.” Yahoo has found a way, said Yang, “to digest all the information in the e-mails, … and it’s smart enough to figure out that those e-mails belong in a CES dinner thread.”