E-mail evolves

The e-mail program you’re using today hasn’t changed much from the time when a handful of messages — not hundreds — was a full in-box.

But now, after years of stagnation, e-mail technology has got a second wind. A flock of new programs and Web services promise to help you control, sort, and search your incoming message flood so you can save time and get more real work done, instead of wading through low-priority missives.

We took a look at some of the most promising members of the new breed. Though not all of them may be suitable for your needs, it is likely that one or more of them can help free you from in-box bondage.

A fresh start

If you’re serious about solving your e-mail issues and are willing to ditch your existing e-mail application to do so, Bloomba may be for you. Roughly 10MB, this stand-alone e-mail program from Stata Labs is currently offered as a free beta trial (a final version will ship later this year for about $US40). Bloomba’s main selling point is its impressive power searching and sorting functions. The software operates as a POP3 client (or with POP3 forwarding with Microsoft Exchange and Web-based accounts) and works in Windows 98, 2000, or XP.

Bloomba’s interface closely resembles current versions of Outlook, with a familiar left-hand folder stack and viewing pane. The most obvious difference is the search control panel anchored above the in-box. There’s no need to open a separate ‘advanced search’ window with Bloomba — it’s all advanced, and it’s all there in the control panel.

Spend about half an hour learning Bloomba’s shortcuts and tricks, and you’ll save loads of time later. You can search within subject lines, body text, and even text attachments; specify a date range for a search; and save and revisit recent or frequent searches. There are also buttons for one-click sorting and collapsing by thread or subscription.

To test Bloomba’s ability, we searched for a specific name (in the recipient list, body text, or attachment) among all in-box documents from the past three months, collapsed the resulting list into a directory, and sorted by thread — all within the control panel. The software generated search results in the in-box as we tweaked the parameters. Bloomba’s biggest weakness: it lacks an address book, relying instead on autocomplete technology. (But the feature should be in place by the time you read this.) Another minor drawback is its relatively generic spam protection.

Apart from these issues, Bloomba is good stuff, and clearly geared toward power users who routinely maintain a deep in-box and are willing to learn a few tricks to mine it efficiently.

Move the junk

Eager to clean up your in-box but unwilling to part with Outlook? An add-on called Ella may offer you a better fit.

Open Field Software’s Ella is based on the idea that presorting e-mail and putting the junk aside is a great way to save time. In most e-mail programs, sorting depends on finding matches in a specific part of the message, such as the sender name or the subject line. Ella takes a more sophisticated tack — it analyses more than 100 elements of each message (from sender to content type to message route), looking for patterns.

The process centres on the choices you make as a six-step training wizard walks you through your existing Outlook in-box. The wizard prompts you to provide examples of the type of messages you definitely want to keep, those you may want to keep, and those you consider junk. Based on your selections, the program places your incoming mail in ‘keep’, ‘maybe’, and ‘junk’ folders.

Sneak peek: next Outlook tackles in-box flood

Microsoft feels your e-mail pain. It’s no coincidence that of all the applications in the company’s popular Office suite, Outlook is getting by far the most visible makeover in the next version, due later this year.

It starts with a new look. The in-box, instead of sitting on top of the preview pane, is now a slim column sandwiched between the Outlook shortcut bar on the left and a much larger preview pane on the right. This layout creates much more room for the actual message (though in-box subject lines may be slightly truncated).

Microsoft has also greatly improved Outlook’s ability to locate specific messages — important when you receive dozens a day. For example, you can save the parameters and results of a search to a folder that displays updated search results whenever you open it. And these search folders are virtual, which means that a single message can show up in multiple search folders.

Outlook 2003 also includes improved junk-mail filtering. The default ‘low’ setting catches only obvious spam, but if you set it on ‘high’, it’s likely to grab the occasional nonspam message (so keep an eye on the Junk E-Mail folder). You can also turn off the filter altogether, or instruct Outlook to treat everything as spam except messages from identified trusted senders.

Another useful management tool. When e-mail arrives that Outlook identifies as legit, the program notifies you with a small, semitransparent window that shows the sender, the header, and a few words of text. The window quickly fades away, adding a charming Cheshire cat–like touch to this newly invigorated desktop fixture.

- Yardena Arar

Ella’s attempts to learn by example are interesting, but its overall performance was somewhat frustrating. The wizard kept popping up whenever we launched Outlook, even after we completed the training (a bug the company is working to correct). Another known bug prevented the program from sorting the remaining messages after we finished the training.

The program divvied up subsequent e-mail messages with some success, but the initial accuracy wasn’t good enough to make us feel comfortable handing over the task full-time. Although Ella’s precision should increase with use, for a while it forces you to sort through three in-boxes instead of one — not exactly a time-saver. Billed as a smart in-box assistant, the 18MB downloadable program sells for $US30; a Pro version intended for enterprise users is expected to ship later this year.

Now that’s Oddpost

A growing number of users rely entirely on Web-based e-mail services for personal correspondence, since they’re easy to use and accessible from anywhere. Unfortunately, free Web-based e-mail such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail are slow, force you to view ads, and tend to offer limited tools.

Oddpost is different. For $US30 a year, this speedy Web-based service includes many of the features of a fully-fledged desktop client. In fact, it works almost exactly like today’s Outlook, but it runs on the Web.

Created to be your new in-box, Oddpost also grabs messages from POP3 servers (you can customise your From and Reply To fields to retain your current identities). It does not retrieve messages from non-POP3-supported Web-based services — you must autoforward those accounts.

Nicely designed, Oddpost has a drag-and-drop interface that takes advantage of technology in recent versions of the Internet Explorer browser to let you move messages between folders without having to reload the Web page. This is a significant evolutionary step for Web-based mail, as any dial-up user frustrated by slow, constantly reloading pages can tell you. With Oddpost, you can do pretty much anything — composing, sorting, filing, deleting, sending, and filtering — within a single page. The one downside: the service works only with Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher.

As for spam, Oddpost has a basic screener that stops and redirects overtly spammish mail to a junk folder. It also has a feature for individually marking messages as legit or spam. Oddpost then uses a statistical analysis technique to adjust itself to what you consider spam. Beyond that, Oddpost doesn’t try to sort your mail, but its lightning speed makes doing that yourself easier and quicker.

More-useful e-mail

Instead of sorting or filtering incoming messages and spam, Kubi Software’s product aims to eliminate messy threads and attachments by incorporating groupware options into your e-mail. It works with Microsoft Outlook 2000 and 2002, as well as with the groupware-orientated IBM Lotus Notes 5 and 6, and it requires an e-mail account on a Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or POP3 server.

Kubi Client lets business users share documents, contacts, task lists, and team folders (it even lets Notes and Outlook users cross-collaborate). Team members create task-specific spaces that look much like your other e-mail folders, except that all team members can access and update them. When you are using the collaboration tools, Kubi Client opens two windows above your in-box with panes that list all active projects.

Kubi Client is essentially a workgroup application posing as an e-mail add-on. Directed at corporate users, Kubi carries a price tag of $US149 per user (enterprise licences are available); also, some of the product’s high-end features will require the company’s upcoming server software. Licensed users can invite others to participate on a guest basis at no additional cost.

Overall, we found all four of the products useful in their own unique ways. For ambition and potential, Kubi Client is the standout, pushing e-mail toward workgroup collaboration. Bloomba gets high marks as well for empowering users to employ their best filtering asset — their own two eyes — more effectively.

Master e-mail: new ways to get control

From stand-alone services to plug-ins to new clients, these tools help fight in-box overload.
E-mail product URL Description Cost Comments
Bloomba* www.bloomba.com E-mail client is search savvy and works with POP3 and forwarded accounts. Free beta; $US40 at launch Slick interface makes power searching easy, but spam protection is minimal.
Ella www.openfieldsoftware.com Outlook 2000 and 2002 plug-in prioritises incoming mail. $US30 Versatile, trainable sorting tool, but a little buggy.
Kubi Client www.kubisoftware.com Program adds collaboration tools to Outlook 2000 and 2002, and to Lotus Notes 5 and 6. $US149 Nicely integrated collaboration features, but pricey.
Oddpost www.oddpost.com Highly efficient Web-based e-mail works alone, with POP3 accounts, and forwarded Web mail. $US30 per year Speedy Web interface plus trainable sorting; basic spam filter.
* Beta version, not rated.

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