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OutlookDeck brings Twitter concepts to e-mail

E-mail, Twitter, and Facebook all want your constant attention. Here's how to give it to them without losing your mind. It's all about filtering your social airspace.

How many competing streams of information do you need to keep track of?

I monitor three e-mail accounts, Twitter, FriendFeed, and Facebook to keep current with life and work. Those are my streams of continuous personal input, separate from the items that we all handle on an interrupt basis: phone calls, Skype, IMs, and people dropping by.

I don't think I'm unique in feeling overwhelmed. There's a ton of information we're all getting in real time today, and we need modern ways to process it.

Some of the services responsible for generating floods of personal information are also innovating in giving users ways to deal with it. Facebook, for example, redesigned its default view to present a stream of information that users could throttle by the judicious use of new filters. A lot of people didn't like it, but Facebook was on to something: the future of dealing with personal incoming information streams is real-time filtering.

OutlookDeck gives you TweetDeck-like features for your e-mail stream. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

This is the new way to handle otherwise overwhelming incoming streams: Set up smart filters, park a window showing them somewhere on your desktop, and watch them out of the corner of your eye. It's the continuous partial-attention concept that has been talked about for a while, and with the right software tools and sufficient monitor real estate, it is not nearly as distracting as you might think.

If you're a pilot or a particularly attentive driver, you'll see this as similar to situation awareness, the pervasive perception of all the parts of your environment and your orientation to them.

One of the reasons I like TweetDeck (and several of its competitors) so much is that it makes social-network awareness easy. You can set up a console that shows you different columns for search results on multiple different queries, all at once. As your moods or needs change, you can turn on and off your queries.

For example, I run a "Webware 100" query when we're running the awards program; when I'm in the middle of covering a conference or tracking a hot news story, I set up queries for those items. I turn them off when the events wind down.

There's an old product category that desperately needs dashboard filters: e-mail. Sure, you can search in almost any e-mail product, and you can even save your searches so you can pop into them for quick peeks. Some e-mail clients, like Outlook, can also pop up alerts on screen when you get certain messages.

Neither of these solutions is quite right. What the heavy e-mail user needs is a way to quietly monitor incoming mail with desktop filters. And that's what the early-stage software experiment OutlookDeck does. Used correctly, it's a valuable productivity booster.

OutlookDeck looks like TweetDeck. It shows you multiple filtered columns of incoming items pulled from your Outlook e-mail app. It cannot replace the e-mail client itself, but it's a good tool to monitor your in-box for things important for you. For example, if you want to see all the messages about a project you're working on, or all mentions of a competitor, you can set up filters for those. (You can also use it to display your unfiltered in-box, but it's redundant for that purpose.)

The product was created by David Ing, who's been working on tools to improve e-mail since before this experiment. He previously wrote Taglocity, a system for reducing e-mail clutter in work groups by applying tags and filters to multiparty conversations.

OutlookDeck is very useful, even though its filters are coarse--you can't create complex queries, for example. And you can't save queries for later. It also does a poor job displaying text from e-mails that have HTML coding in them. But this small app does show how the constant social dialogue that people are getting accustomed to with Twitter, and Facebook, and FriendFeed is making its way into the hoary old communications medium of e-mail.

I like it. We are being barraged by streams of information, but with the right tools, it is possible to find a balance between getting too much information that takes too much of your attention, and not getting enough, which puts you out of touch in your own social airspace.