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A New Look for Outlook

Xobni makes it easier to find relevant information buried in your inbox.

For more than a decade, the look and feel of e-mail inboxes has remained agonizingly static. Many of today’s mail applications can predict the address a user is typing and show threads of conversations, and some are searchable by keyword, but none provide a truly innovative way to view e-mails.

Mining e-mail: Xobni’s software displays information usually buried in an e-mail program. Above is a screen shot of the Xobni panel, which sits to the right of the Outlook inbox. When an e-mail in the inbox is highlighted, the panel displays information connected to the person who sent the message, such as phone numbers, his social network, attachments, and e-mail threads.

Now, a startup based in San Francisco called Xobni (“inbox” spelled backward) has released a test version of software that gives Outlook, at least, a completely different feel. Xobni’s goals, says cofounder Adam Smith, are to pull out relevant but sometimes buried information from a person’s inbox and other folders, and make it easy to find. Overall, Smith and cofounder Matt Brezina succeed in building an attractive, useful interface to show people a side of their inbox that they rarely see, such as phone numbers buried in the bodies of messages and social networks between e-mail correspondents.

The idea of indexing e-mail is certainly not new, and Google Desktop has a feature that goes through a user’s Outlook files to make searching them easy. But what makes Xobni distinct is that it turns e-mail from a message-based system into a people-based system. When a Xobni user highlights an e-mail in her inbox, a panel pops up showing useful information about the sender. If a picture is available, it appears, as does a bar graph showing the times of day when the sender has e-mailed the user. This is useful for gauging when that person may be online and working in the future. Xobni keeps track of the number of e-mails the user and sender have exchanged and even ranks the sender in terms of the frequency of e-mail contact.

An extremely useful feature is one in which Xobni displays the phone number of the sender, pulled out from an e-mail signature or the body of an e-mail. What’s more, the software is able to provide a list of people who have also been included on e-mails with the sender and user, revealing a social network that would most likely otherwise go unnoticed. For instance, when looking at the social network of one of my more well-connected colleagues, I found e-mail addresses for a couple of people who weren’t in my Outlook contacts and whose e-mail addresses are useful to know.

The Xobni panel also includes a list of recent e-mail conversations organized by thread and sorted by date, and a list of files exchanged between the user and the sender, likewise organized by date. In addition, Xobni keeps track of the last time the user and senders were in contact with each other, providing a view of people the user might not have e-mailed in a month, three months, or a year or more.

Importantly, Xobni has a search function, akin to the Google Desktop search. While it’s fast compared with Outlook, it still needs some work, as Smith admits. I searched using two words that I knew were in the subject of an e-mail, but the e-mail appeared relatively far down on Xobni’s search results. Smith says that the search feature might favor searching for words in the body of the e-mail rather than in the subject, and that the team was experimenting with the best way to order its search results. Still, I find that Google’s search tool is more powerful at this point.

Xobni also offers a set of analytic tools that can be accessed from the Outlook tool bar. Using these tools, a person can see graphs of her daily, weekly, and monthly e-mail activity, from average e-mails sent and received to the average response time. For people who are interested in when they are most productive or are looking to find a way to change their working habits, this could be a useful feature.

When you first download Xobni, the software notes that it is indexing your e-mails–looking for little bits of data about such things as the name of the sender, the date, e-mail addresses of people who have been cc’d, and whether or not there is an attachment; the process takes between 15 and 25 minutes. Xobni starts with the most recent e-mails and works backward chronologically.

After using Xobni for the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a few quirks that will hopefully be ironed out in future versions. For instance, the software has prolonged the amount of time it takes my version of Outlook to open on my Dell (both are a few years old). Also, Xobni has missed a handful of recent e-mails that I expected to see when I searched for them. But overall, the experience was good, because never before had I had such an interesting look at e-mails and such instant access to phone numbers and attachments.

Right now, Xobni is not available for download, although people may request the software by visiting the website. Smith says that he and his colleagues will most likely be ready to let more people test Xobni within the next couple of months. In 18 months, he says, he expects to release more versions of the software that work with Gmail and Yahoo Mail, for instance. Also, he’s exploring the idea of mining instant-messaging data for social-network connections and content to make Xobni more useful.

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