Imagine being away from your Microsoft Outlook account for four months. Sounds peaceful, right? Now imagine coming back to it, only to find more than 8,500 messages. That’s the situation I faced last month after returning to eWEEK after a four-month-plus hiatus.
When I loaded Outlook 2007 on the new laptop IT gave me, more than 2 hours passed while all of the backloaded e-mail from February through mid-June filtered into my account. I was horrified. How was I going to wade through this e-mail swamp to find important stories to link to or contacts that I needed to connect with for my reporting?
I was a prime candidate for Xobni (inbox spelled backward), a free plug-in that indexes Outlook e-mail and makes it easier for users to search conversations and threads. It also let users connect with contacts through Facebook and LinkedIn, which I thought was pretty nifty when I first saw a demonstration of it last year. But I wasn’t sold on the value of the tool specifically for me because I had never let my e-mail run wild.
I thought Xobni was just for lazy slackers who didn’t want to be bothered with deleting their e-mail when it came in but chose to just search through it occasionally. Two million downloads later, Xobni rolled out a “freemium” offering July 15, charging $29.95 for a perpetual license. Xobni Plus is tailored for individual knowledge workers and small to midsize businesses that may buy licenses in bulk.
When I went to install the tool for the first time, I panicked because I thought it would take forever for Xobni to index my e-mail glut. It took 5 minutes of finger-tapping-not too shabby.
Xobni Plus appeared as a collapsible sidebar to the right of my Outlook inbox, showing me profiles of the people I work with along with associated conversations I’ve had with them via Outlook.
The first new feature I looked at was Xobni’s advanced search. Xobni always let users do a word query search for people or keywords in e-mail. But finding e-mails that contain a single word or name leaves users with a lot of e-mail to sift through.
The Advanced button in Xobni Plus appears under the search bar when users begin typing in a query. Clicking Advanced immediately gave me the options to search From, To and Has Attachments. Clicking the + button next to the Has Attachments option added search filters for CC’d, All, With, Date, Body, Subject, Type and Folder fields. Narrowing the search to find e-mails with the word “Google” using these filters is a big leap in efficiency, which is what the tool is all about.
For this test, I searched for the term “Google,” and typed my colleague “Scott” in the From header. Without hitting Enter, the 54 e-mails from Scott that reference Google appeared, narrowing down the search experience. Then, I wanted to find an e-mail with a Google-related document that I’d sent to Scott awhile back. So, I tweaked the search, taking Scott’s name out of the From box and moving it to the To filter, and clicked “yes” for Has Attachments. Voila! The e-mail popped up.
Xobni Plus also indexes appointments, indexing e-mails from users’ Outlook calendars. The idea is to do searches on top of searches to find that proverbial e-mail needle in the inbox haystack.
In addition, Xobni Plus includes filters for the conversations bar, letting users pare down their e-mail search to only users they’ve had direct conversations with or to search the full message bodies. This is handy for corporate workers and journalists like me who need to weed out those pitch lists that have hundreds of recipients. I clicked on an e-mail from Scott in my inbox, and Xobni Plus let me search keywords from within those conversations with Scott. Essentially, Xobni Plus compartmentalized my inbox, letting me shut out the less useful messages that can clutter search sessions.
The last Xobni Plus feature I delved into was autosuggest. To see this in action, I left the Xobni toolbar to create a new e-mail message in Outlook. As soon as I started typing in the first letter of a contact-say, the letter “N” for Nick-Xobni Plus presented me with a slew of e-mail contacts to click on, using the Xobni Rank system to provide contact options based on the frequency with which e-mails had been exchanged.
The autosuggest feature in Xobni Plus gives users options for every contact that has ever appeared in any e-mail in the entire inbox and makes them accessible in the compose window, right below the original contacts Outlook suggests. This is a marked departure from Outlook’s autocomplete feature, which surfaces only contacts a user directly e-mails.
Social Features in Xobni Hold the Coolness Factor
Advanced search and autosuggest are incredibly useful, but the social features in Xobni hold the coolness factor. I’d seen Xobni demos of the Facebook and LinkedIn integrations before, but it wasn’t until I used these capabilities in Xobni Plus that I understood the gravity of the connection-making. I opted to let Xobni Plus communicate with Facebook and LinkedIn by clicking on those companies’ icons in the Xobni toolbar, right below contact profiles.
Xobni asked me to enter my Facebook and LinkedIn passwords, and then warned me that I was authorizing Xobni to communicate with those apps. I clicked “yes.” The next time I selected an e-mail in Outlook from my colleague Scott, I saw his Facebook profile picture, with his latest public posts. To find him, Xobni recognized that Scott’s work e-mail was associated with his Facebook account.
Clicking on the profile launched the full Facebook profile, making Xobni Plus quite the social app launch pad. It’s a nice perk, but if I’m Xobni, I would think I’d want to keep users in Outlook, not let them migrate to other social networking apps. I guess Xobni believes people will do it anyway, so why not go with the flow and make it easier?
One quibble I have with Xobni Plus, which is probably a reflection on the tool itself, not the paid service upgrade, is that the plug-in sometimes stalls my inbox. So, if I have Xobni Plus open for a while, when I go to click on e-mails, and especially switching back and forth between e-mails, Outlook gets stuck with a 1- to 3-second latency snag. That didn’t happen before I installed Xobni Plus, so it’s no coincidence.
I’m not sure what Xobni can do to remedy this, but for me it’s a small price to pay for the ability to sift through thousands, or even just hundreds, of e-mails. Now that I’ve been using it for a week, I’ve developed a Google-esque comfort with Xobni, and I don’t intend to stop using it.
While $29.95 might seem like a lot of money to pay to use a tool that you’ve used for free, you only pay it once, and the search is much better than what I remember from demos before Xobni Plus. Moreover, just as the paid version of Google Apps contains no advertising, Xobni Plus is ad-free the minute you start using it. Download the tool from Xobni here.
But honestly, if you’re happy with the current search capabilities in your Outlook client (search in Outlook 2007 got a lot more granular, adding filters for searching folders and finding mail from certain people and attachments), you won’t need Xobni Plus. You can even stick to the basic Xobni service if you like.
Or wait until something more attuned to your needs comes along from Xobni that you think is worth paying for. Xobni co-founder Matt Brezina told me Xobni will offer several premium models in the future, possibly including mobile versions.