Xobni makes Outlook better, but where's the business?

There's more to this company than meets Outlook.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

Xobni gives you a useful scorecard for each person who e-mails you. (Click for full image.)

Update: Charlie Cooper and I discuss Xobni in today's News.com podcast.

The e-mail helper app Xobni exits its private beta period Monday morning. Compared with the previous version of the app I tried (see "Handy e-mail helper"), Xobni is now faster and more stable, and thus more useful.

A refresher: Xobni integrates into your Outlook installation and shows you more about your e-mails than Outlook can itself. For each person who sends you e-mail, it shows you who else they communicate with a lot (their de facto social networks), and it finds their phone number from inside their e-mails. It also shows you all conversation threads you've participated in with the person, and all the attachments they've sent you. You can drill into message threads (very useful), and it has a snappy e-mail search engine built in (nice, but redundant).

Unlike many other Outlook add-ons that I've tried, this one seems to add its functionality without dragging down Outlook's performance, or worse, crashing it. It is useful and it doesn't get in the way. There's no reason not to try it. And it's free.

Xobni is neat bit of programming, and Microsoft likes it so much it tried to buy the company. But Xobni walked away from the deal, CEO Jeff Bonforte told me. (Microsoft can't seem to buy anything these days.) At first I thought that was a bad decision, since Xobni is hardly a must-have product. It improves Outlook a bit, sure. But the company is going to need more than this handy little plug-in to become a real business. Microsoft was an easy exit. Why didn't Xobni go for it?

Xobni also extracts e-mail threads. (Click to enlarge.)

Here's what Xobni has up its sleeve: Xobni the app runs on Xobni the platform. This platform has hooks deep into Outlook. The platform is what enables Xobni to graft a viewing pane into Outlook, something other plug-ins can't do. It can also integrate into Outlook's default search bar (it doesn't, yet). The platform is what gives Xobni access to all the message data that it uses without bogging down the Outlook host app.

Xobni plans to do two interesting things with the platform: first, write hooks into other e-mail apps (like Yahoo Mail and Gmail), and second, make the platform available to other vendors. So, for example, if Salesforce.com wants to write a plug-in that tightly integrates its CRM data into Outlook or whatever e-mail app its customers are using, Xobni's toolkit could make that work. Salesforce presumably would make money from such a feature, which Xobni would profit from as well.

It turns out that Xobni is not really an Outlook plug-in company. Rather, it's a company that makes a platform to abstract the difficult-to-write-for-Outlook, as well as other less-broken e-mail services, and that allows the creation of new products that integrate e-mail data with other apps. That's good, since the business of painting incremental features onto Outlook is a bit shallow. The fundamental platform business is less visible to consumers, but it might actually make some money.