Thinking Outside the In-box

One of the Internet’s oldest tools is getting a whole new set of functions.

Search the Internet, and you’ll find hundreds of applications designed to help you collaborate with other people more effectively. But examine your own habits, and you’ll most likely find that you use just one piece of software for that purpose: an e-mail client.

You’re not alone. A recent USamp study found that 83 percent of business users typically send e-mail attachments to colleagues rather than using collaboration software. According to a recent survey by technology consulting company People-OnTheGo, the average information worker spends 3.3 hours a day dealing with e-mail, and 65 percent of such workers have their e-mail client open all the time.

Even Facebook, which once seemed like a likely replacement for e-mail, at least for the young and plugged-in, has acknowledged that e-mail isn’t going anywhere. On Monday, the company announced a new messaging service that integrates external e-mail with its own internal messaging system—an admission of the staying power of e-mail, and an attempt to enhance its functionality.

Other software makers seem to have accepted that they’ll never pull people’s attention away from their e-mail in-boxes. Instead, they’re looking to add new collaborative and social capabilities to e-mail.

“It’s clear that e-mail is being used and even abused,” says Yaacov Cohen, CEO of Mainsoft, a company based in Tel Aviv, Israel, that sells a plug-in called Harmon.ie. The plug-in links an e-mail application to a collaboration platform such as Google Docs, and to a person’s social networking profiles, calendar applications, voice over Internet protocol software, and so on. To share a document using Harmon.ie, a user drags it from a sidebar to the body of a message, where it becomes a link. When the recipient clicks on the link, she is taken to the document stored in the chosen collaboration software. Using e-mail alone for collaboration creates confusion and overloads in-boxes, Cohen says.

Another startup, called Meshin, plans to connect e-mail with even more sources of information. The company has developed semantic technology that finds key topics in e-mail messages, like the names of people and companies, and then searches for those topics elsewhere. Meshin has so far developed a prototype Outlook plug-in that analyzes RSS feeds as well as e-mail messages. Ultimately, the company plans to extend this to tweets, blog posts, search results, and more. The technology was spun out of research in natural language processing done at the Palo Alto Research Center.

Not all adjustments to e-mail are happening within the client. Isaac Saldana, CEO of SendGrid, based in Boulder, Colorado, says e-mail can also be enhanced as it travels between sender and receiver.

SendGrid currently uses its technology to filter out spam and help companies ensure that relevant messages don’t end up in junk folders. But Saldana says that the same technology could do much more. For example, when someone tries to transfer a very large file through e-mail—which now often causes that message to be rejected—the technology could silently divert the message to a server intended for large files.

Saldana says users could perform most of their tasks through e-mail more effectively, with SendGrid’s software sorting out how to handle things. Messages sent to particular e-mail addresses could signal that an attached video should be posted to YouTube, or that the text in the body of the e-mail needs to be translated into another language.

Saldana isn’t worried that these capabilities will overcomplicate an appealingly simple tool. “E-mail is everywhere,” he says, and few people have time to use lots of different applications for different tasks. “We’re living at a time when we have to do too many things,” Saldana says.

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