Astro is an AI-powered email client with big dreams

A fresh startup hopes to be the enterprise’s conversational interface

If there’s one source of technological frustration at work, it’s email. Getting a job done often still relies on sending chains of messages back and forth to the extent that it would be nice to have an assistant to help deal with it all.

That’s the idea behind Astro, a new app that applies artificial intelligence to email in an attempt to make life easier for its users. Its marquee feature is Astrobot, a chatbot powered by machine learning that’s designed to keep users abreast of what’s important in their inbox.

For example, Astrobot will read through users’ emails and notify them when they’ve been asked important questions. It can also be used to unsubscribe from emails, clean out a user’s inbox and more. That functionality sits on top of a solid, modern email client, which entered public beta on Mac and iOS Thursday.

The company was founded by veterans of email service Zimbra looking to improve workplace communications and productivity.

“We were thinking with this AI stuff, instead of working for our communications software, how could it work for us?” Astro co-founder Ross Dargahi said.

But email is only one part of what Astro has planned in the long run. The company wants to take its position as a conversational interface for users’ inboxes, add connections to other systems of record like CRM and then use Astrobot as the interface to all of it.

In the future, the bot could use information from users’ email to highlight which of their Salesforce notifications are particularly important. That could help sort out the signal from the noise for users, especially those who get a high volume of such notifications.

The market for apps and services that are designed to serve as a single interface to multiple enterprise systems of record is a crowded one filled with existing players. But Satish Dharmaraj, a partner at Redpoint Ventures who led Astro’s recent round of Series A funding, said that starting with email gives Astro an advantage.

“That is why we started with email, because we think email is the portal to everything that’s happening inside an enterprise,” he said.

But until the company’s integration ambitions come to pass, its email apps will be available for use. The Astro app currently sports a number of features critical to a modern email client, including the ability to file messages away with a swipe, and a priority inbox that divides messages up based on whether Astro thinks they’re important.

For that latter feature, users can train Astro with their preferences for what is and isn’t a priority so that it files future messages in a smarter way. The app also lets users schedule outgoing messages, so recipients don’t know that they were initially written at 3 a.m. during a bout of insomnia.

It’s worth noting that this is a beta in the truest sense of the term — Astro’s app still has a handful of bugs, though the company is working hard to fix outstanding issues as fast as it can. The team is also fine-tuning some of Astrobot’s functionality.

One of the risks facing Astro is whether the company will be able to convince business users to give it access to their private data. In order to do things like remind users of questions that people have sent, the system needs to be able to read all the emails that come in. That might be a bridge too far for some security-conscious companies and users.

Astro is available for free, but the company will begin offering a subscription later this year that will add additional features. Right now, the company’s service works with Gmail and Office 365 email accounts, though they’re working to add other services in the future.

The company is also working to add Windows and Android support. In addition, Astro is developing some sort of integration with Alexa, though the company has not provided details.

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