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Operating Systems

New Outlook add-on cuts through the inbox clutter

Xobni beta analyzes e-mail to collect information and establish relationships automatically.

Keeping your e-mail organized isn't a full-time job; it just seems like it is.

I gave up trying to clear out my Outlook inbox years ago. I rely on the program's search features, which are improved in Outlook 2007, though finding specific messages is still a challenge. That's why I jumped at the chance to try out the beta version of Xobni (pronounced "ZOB-nee"), a new program that sifts your messages automatically and provides insight about your relationship to the sender. It's an invitation-only download for now, so you have to request that a download link be e-mailed to you.

Xobni is one of those programs that makes you wonder, "How do they do that?" When you select a message, information about your correspondence with the sender appears in the Xobni pane to the right of the message window in Outlook 2007 and 2003. At the top of the pane is a graph plotting the times of day you've received messages from the person, so you can see at a glance whether they're early risers or nighthawks (you can also associate an image with the person). A bar chart just below this graph shows the number of messages received from and sent to the person, along with a rank indicating how frequently you interact with them compared to your other e-mail correspondents.

Xobni add-on for Outlook
Get automatic insight into your e-mail relationships with the free Xobni add-on for Outlook 2003 and 2007. Xobni

Among the program's neat tricks is the ability to extract the person's telephone number from messages rather than relying on their entry in your contacts list. You're also shown other people you've communicated with who are related in some way to the person, and a list of the files that have been attached to their messages.

I've only scratched the surface of what Xobni is capable of, but what motivated me to try the program in the first place was its search function, which puts Outlook's built-in Find feature to shame. Not only do you get type-ahead that automatically completes your search term, Xobni is bullet-fast, and when you search for a name, you can view the person's profile with a single click, so all the e-mail you've sent them or received from them is at your disposal.

To compare searching in Outlook with and without Xobni, I entered "Rich" in both search fields. Outlook displayed a list of mail from and to several different people named "Rich", as well as messages about getting "rich" or "rich" desserts. I could've used Outlook's advanced search options to narrow my search, but instead I entered the term in Xobni's search field and let the add-on do the filtering for me automatically. In Xobni's search results I could choose to open the profile for "Rich K." or "Rich T." and have their messages, attached files, and other information displayed without any added steps.

Xobni is well worth the space it takes in the main Outlook window for the time and trouble it saves. I can't say it makes using Outlook fun, but it does make the program more interesting.

Tomorrow: advanced tips for using Gmail's labels to find the messages you're looking for.