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Yahoo's Plan for a Smarter In-Box

Its e-mail program will trade data with social-networking sites.

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.

Inbox insight: Yahoo plans to combine various Web services with Mail, to allow people to more easily manage their messages and organize social events.

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.”

In the demo, they then dragged the words “CES dinner” from a list of conversation threads to the Yahoo Maps icon within the in-box. All of the suggestions in the e-mails were automatically placed on the map, labeled with numbers (see image below). The number with the largest font indicated the restaurant that would most likely be acceptable to everyone involved in the discussion, according to preferences they’d already submitted to Yahoo, such as restaurant reviews.

Yahoo executives recently highlighted new features that they plan to add to Yahoo Mail. Here, a collection of e-mails, automatically categorized as “CES dinner,” was dragged to the map icon in Mail. The map incorporates the restaurant suggestions from the e-mails and marks the locations on a map with numbers. The larger the number’s font, the more likely the restaurant will appeal to everyone involved in the e-mail discussion.
Credit: Yahoo!

Next, the large “1” from the map was dragged to an Evite icon to the left of the in-box. Evite, Yang explained, is an example of a third party that can develop applications that work within Mail, in much the same way that companies outside of Facebook and LinkedIn build applications to work with those services. Automatically, an Evite dinner invitation was generated for all of the participants in the conversation.

It makes sense to bring existing services, such as Evite, into the in-box, says Adam Smith, cofounder and CEO of Xobni. He adds that ranking e-mails based on the user’s relationship to the sender is also crucial to advancing the state of e-mail. “It’s so hard for a user to manually walk through the past 500 messages to see who they correspond with most prolifically,” says Smith.

Smith says that he thinks Yahoo’s research is off to a good start, and the company has “the potential to run circles around its competitors.” But he cautions that there’s still a lot of work ahead before the new, fully featured version of the demonstrated Yahoo Mail finds its way to the masses. “I’d tell people not to hold their breath,” he says.

Yahoo, for its part, says that some unspecified features could be rolled out within the coming months but that Mail users shouldn’t expect a drastic overhaul of the system anytime soon.

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