Xobni Could Make Microsoft's Outlook Freer

Analysis: Xobni would have been a nice addition to help unburden Outlook customers. Too bad Microsoft blew it.

Microsoft may have left Yahoo at the altar, but that doesn't mean it can't wed another, or at least adopt a little brother.

Xobni might have been the perfect match. The San Francisco startup May 5 emerged from beta with its inbox socialization software, a tool that hundreds of millions of Microsoft Outlook users could download to organize their e-mail by relationships. Xobni ("inbox" spelled backwards) is what Outlook might look like if it were turned into a social network.

But it looks like Microsoft whiffed on this opportunity, according to this post from TechCrunch. A dose of irony: Xobni's CEO is former Yahoo executive Jeff Bonforte.

Xobni could make Outlook more appealing to customers by adding social tools to what is still a bland, cumbersome e-mail application.

The value of this to Microsoft can't be understated. It is woefully behind in socialization tools, but has said that it wants to gain more leverage in the market beyond its $240 million stake in Facebook.

As social networks such as Facebook and MySpace have matured, the value of a tool like Xobni (and its Gmail cousin Xoopit) has become increasingly clear.

E-mail forms the hub of communication in social networks, and some users of those sites say they don't even use Outlook or Gmail accounts anymore because they largely communicate with their friends, colleagues and other contacts within the parameters of the social network.

Once downloaded, Xobni shows up as a sidebar in Outlook, analyzing e-mail in a way that's more attuned to human nature than just zeroes and ones. The tool creates a sidebar next to the community page inside Outlook, so that when a user clicks on a message, it automatically generates a profile of his or her interactions with the sender of the message.

The profile includes a photo of the contact, when he or she checks e-mail, and the number of ingoing and outgoing messages. It also pulls the contact's phone number from his or her signature and enables click-to-call capabilities via Skype.

Below the profile window is a social network of e-mail, where users can look at historical e-mail in threaded conversations (similar to Gmail) and see their contacts' contacts. There is a separate section that shows what files were exchanged.

The tool received a warm reception at the TechCrunch40 conference in September 2007, receiving thousands of downloads in a few hours. According to a Xobni statement, the company limited the beta to digest user feedback and iterate on the product in its early stages.

Xobni could be a start for Microsoft if Microsoft hadn't spooked it, or if the two companies ever decide to rekindle their flirtation. Unlike Yahoo, Xobni fits the bill of a typical Microsoft acquisition because it's small. Even better, it's already built to run on top of Outlook, meaning Microsoft needn't do much should it acquire the company.

Xobni also offered this profound-sounding statement in its release: "A true beta is an idea rarely visited in what's become a development culture obsessed with launching as quickly as possible, sometimes without consideration of the product's future."

Sounds like something out of Google's product release playbook, or lack thereof.

But it is just as probable that the reason for the limited beta is that Xobni didn't want to crash its own computer systems. Under the auspices of the bountiful Microsoft data centers, this potential catastrophe would be moot.