It might be the most popular email application in the world, but Microsoft’s Outlook is no stunner. People use it because one version or another comes with almost every PC, it’s part of the world’s most popular Office suite, and it’s had precious little mainstream competition so it seems to be the default anyway.
In fact, Outlook is rather good when you get into its deeper recesses, but as a simple email client for everyday use it has limitations. Despite having a suite of add-on mini-apps (such as the excellent Calendar for instance) it takes considerable diligence to organise emails into a form that will make them easy to retrieve for quick reference beyond remembering to pop them in assigned folders.
How many times has Mr X contacted you in the last year, and what was the thread of the email conversations that took place? Outlook has no idea. You can run search, but that just offers a dumb list of emails sent to or from a person, or including a specific search string. Quickly retrieving the train of communication that made up these emails is just one of these things you ‘can’t do’.
Xobni (that’s ‘inbox’ backwards of course) is a fee-to-download add-on that sets out to rescue Outlook users from this sort of informational dead end. Loading as a tool-strip on the right side of the Outlook screen, its first and simplest function is to act as a fast index of all the emails held by the client. Although Outlook 2007/Vista is already much better at this than the useless XP Outlook, Xobni is faster still. Why can’t Microsoft make Outlook work this swiftly, we ask ourselves, rhetorically.
The next great thing about Xobni is the way that as you click on a received email, it displays a variety of information about your relationship with the person who sent it (e.g. how often you send/receive from one another), noting the thread of emails over time. This makes it trivial to look back to older emails for reference – they are automatically displayed in one of Xobni’s panes.
If they sent you any attachments over time, these are also displayed in case you want to open one. Xobni can even extract telephone numbers from text in the email footer.
Xobni, then, is a sort of database of everything that lives inside Outlook, from the contacts themselves to data generated by your relationship with them. Because of this underlying concept, it can analyse the flow of emails, displaying graphs that tell you how many emails you received on average in a particular month, how long it took you to reply to them, and the numbers sent or received from particular people in particular time periods, if that’s important to you.
There aren’t many disadvantages to Xobni. It seems to slow down Outlook loading slightly, thought only slightly, something that is more than made up for by the way it speeds up processing email data in other ways. The analytics wasn’t bang on in some respects, missing some emails received even though they were accessible in the main search.
A missing feature is a way of customising the interface so that contacts can be prioritised in privileged groups. That way, it might be possible to start collecting data on the contacts that are most used, or which matter the most, perhaps using that as a springboard to managing these contacts and relationships. ‘If I forget to email such and such, remind me after X days’, for instance.
According to its creators, Xobni was described as the “next generation of social networking” by none other than Bill Gates himself. Given that its primary purpose is to unblock the clogged artery that is Microsoft’s Outlook, you assume this was said in jest. If Xobni is so good, and Outlook so lacking in such features, why hasn’t Microsoft come up with the idea itself?
Apparently, Microsoft had an interest in acquiring the company, but the two parties could not agree on price and terms and conditions. That sounds like a coded way of saying that Microsoft offered Xobni’s creators peanuts so the creators had the self-possession to say ‘no’.
Despite the comment about social networking tool in the Web 2.0 mould, this would be over-stating Xobni’s abilities. It can help you schedule time with contacts, helpfully stripping out times you’ve noted yourself as busy in Outlook’s calendar, but if this is social networking then it’s at a very basic level. Social networking is about the power of the group; Xobni is still a tool for managing a series of one-on-one contacts. Social networking is also something well catered for in other applications.
You could argue that by improving Outlook, Xobni simply fixes the design deficiencies that would be better served by writing a totally new application. Equally, there aren’t a lot of those about unless you jump into online applications. For the humble POP3 Outlook user, professional or personal, Xobni deserves to be recommended as an invaluable tool to make it work in a more productive way.
There aren't really any lightweight alternatives to Xobni, aside from abandoning Outlook completely for an online email service. Whether it's for all users is another matter. This is an idea fit for the email-driven laptop user, overwhelmed with a volume of communication they can't quite cope with. People with lower email volumes will still get something out of it, however.