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E-mail overhaul to avoid overload?

E-mail as it's currently known would not be designed the same for business communication, a software expert tells attendees at a seminar in Australia.

By Stephen Withers

SYDNEY--If you struggle to keep up with today's e-mail volumes, what will you do in the future when you get ten times as many messages, including unsolicited e-mail from corporate systems and alerts from a variety of devices?

That was the question posed by Bill French, chief ingenuity officer of collaboration software developer Starbase, at a seminar hosted by the Victorian branch of the Australian Computer Society. While he did not claim to have the answer to this problem, he did suggest some possible directions.

Part of the problem is that if someone was going to design a system for business communication, e-mail as we know it today would not be the result. A checklist of required attributes would probably include the ability to detect the type of device being used, where an employee is using it, and how secure it is.

"E-mail is practically the opposite of what we would build," French said.

French says that many people send e-mail to multiple addresses to ensure they reach the receiver, putting in the same message in several mailboxes. Giving a personal example about the need for location awareness, when he checked his e-mail that morning from his hotel room, the messages at the top of his in-box were administrative items that would only be relevant if he was back in his office in the United States.

"We could never get away with this (inefficiency) in any other product development," he said. E-mail "seems to be a choke point that needs to be eliminated."

Business communications software needs to have some kind of "understanding" of the context of a message: which individuals are involved and what they do, allowing it to categorize the message in some useful way.

"We don't have the time to categorize manually any more," French said. We need to separate content from meaning, just as we have learned to separate data and presentation when building a Web site, French suggested.

Some software developers are already trying to retrofit some of these ideas to the existing e-mail infrastructure.

French demonstrated Enfish, a program that associates and indexes e-mails and attachments you have exchanged with other people, along with related news items, notes, Web-based information and so on.

"There are some basic assumptions we can make that make e-mail more productive," he said.

Staff writer Stephen Withers reported from Sydney.