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E-mail sorting made simple?

A start-up is just the latest in a string of companies trying to take e-mail standard programs such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook into the 21st century.

E-mail's transformation from the days of "Reply," "Reply To All" and "Forward" will get another push Monday with the launch of Abridge, a company that wants to add "Collaborate" to the list of e-mail functions.

Abridge automatically files e-mails into appropriate virtual folders, sends some missives to public viewing areas for co-workers to read, and files away attachments, said Abridge President Susan Hunt Stevens.

With an investor like John Landry, the former chief technology officer who helped create IBM's Lotus Notes, Abridge is just the latest of a series of companies trying to take e-mail standard programs such as Notes and Microsoft Outlook into the 21st century.

E-mail has become one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of Internet usage, which just reached an all-time high of 60 percent in all U.S. households.

Most of the latest e-mail players are trying to hawk their wares to businesses, where it's estimated that an average consumer spends about three hours every day dealing with their in-box.

Analysts say it's time for a change. E-mail may have gotten faster, and people can send rich media like video or even e-mail with audio. But the basics of having to open up each e-mail and read it have remained the same.

Companies like Abridge, Zaplet, Tacit Knowledge Systems and others are trying to change all that--first on the corporate level, and within a few years, for the consumer.

"There's no doubt that proliferation of e-mail over the last year has really shifted some of the emphasis," said Christopher Todd, a Jupiter Research analyst. "In three to five years, you'll start to see e-mail and instant messaging bleed into one another."

But the one common thread through all the new software applications is the automated reading of e-mail, which continues to raise security and privacy concerns.

It's a moot point now because many e-mail application companies sell their services mainly to businesses for use on their own network systems. In an office environment, "there's no presumption of privacy," said Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation.

But "things will get interesting," once the latest gizmos finally trickle down to the consumer, he said.

Aside from Abridge, one of the new e-mail players is Zaplet, which in October received $90 million in funding. The company offers another business e-mail reading service, sending shared e-mail onto a central server. Some of its customers so far include the Republican National Committee.

Getting to know you
Tacit Knowledge is a bit older, but just as bold. Its software searches through an entire group of e-mails for groups of phrases as a way for businesses to discover the supposed expertise of its employees. Tacit's customers include oil giant Texaco.

Investment bank J.P. Morgan was also testing the e-mail system and was ready to introduce it companywide but was derailed by a merger with Chase. Tacit's future at the new company is in limbo, the company said.

"We use e-mail as a trail of bread crumbs to characterize people," said David Gilmour, CEO of Tacit.

Even the older established players are starting to take notice. In January, IBM, which owns Lotus, launched its "discovery server." Microsoft is supposedly testing "Tahoe"," which is a Tacit-like service that tries to ascertain what an employee is an expert in by dredging through their e-mails.

There are other companies that are "pushing the envelope" like MindArrow Systems, which is now testing a way for brokerage firms to send video clips of analyst comments about a stock into e-mail, Todd said.

There's also Radical Communications, which is working on letting a consumer shop directly from an e-mail in-box, Todd said.