For all the hype about “social networking” Web sites, the most popular and successful way to network over the Internet is still the oldest: email. If it’s organized properly, boring old email can reveal as much or more information about the people you know, and their relationships with you, than hipper services like MySpace or Facebook.
This is especially true if you are the kind of person who saves most of his or her email. That mound of messages can be a treasure trove of contact information and a history of your interactions with hundreds, or thousands, of personal and business acquaintances. It can tell you the phone numbers and job titles of people, and even who you and your correspondents most often copy on email. It’s a sort of social network all its own.
The trouble is, it’s hard to tease all that information out of the typical email program. And that goes double for the most popular, but most bloated and dense, email program of all, Microsoft Outlook (MSFT).
Now, however, there’s a new, free plug-in module for Outlook that adds a set of social-networking and data-mining features right inside the venerable program. This new plug-in for Outlook is called Xobni, which is “inbox” spelled backward and is pronounced “ZOB-nee.” It is completely contained in a colorful vertical panel that lives on the right side of your Outlook screen and doesn’t block or intrude upon Outlook’s own panes or functions.
I’ve been testing Xobni and I like it. The product has some flaws, and is still a work in progress, but I found that it made Outlook much faster and more useful. Xobni turned my Outlook experience from one that was organized by messages and dates into one that was organized by people, relationships and histories.
Xobni, available at Xobni.com, works with the 2003 and 2007 versions of Outlook, whether you are running Windows XP or Windows Vista. The San Francisco start-up behind Xobni, also called Xobni, is working on versions for other email readers, such as Yahoo Mail (YHOO).
Xobni indexes all your stored email, starting with the most recent messages. Once the email is indexed, the Xobni sidebar shows a profile of the sender of any email you have selected in the message list in your inbox or other folders. Each profile is divided into useful sections, and as you drill down into the specifics on each person, the entire sidebar may fill with more detailed information.
At the top of the Xobni panel is a huge search box. This in itself makes it worth installing the program. It is much faster and better than Outlook’s own search, returning results almost instantly and in two lists — people and mail — with the search terms highlighted.
But that’s just the start. Under the search box is the name of the sender of any email you have selected, with a photo, if available, and a bar chart showing how many emails you’ve received from that person and the times of day when that person appears to be most or least active on email. The latter can be a handy guide to deciding the best time to send an email for a quick response.
Under that is a section carrying the person’s phone number, extracted either from Outlook’s contacts or from the person’s email signature or the body of his or her emails. If Xobni can’t find a phone number, you can click on a link that appears where the phone number would have been, to generate an email asking for a number.
Similarly, Xobni can generate an email asking for a meeting with any person in its profile and fill in that email with your open times for the next few days, drawn from your Outlook calendar. You can also open a new, blank email form, preaddressed to the person in the profile, with a single click.
If the person has a profile on the business-oriented LinkedIn social-networking service, the Xobni panel will display his or her job title, employer, and a photo from LinkedIn.
The final three sections in the Xobni sidebar are even more useful. The first one shows the person’s email “network” — a list of everyone that person has placed in the “To” or “Cc” fields of emails you’ve exchanged. The next section is called “Conversations” and displays the entire threads of all the email exchanges you’ve had with the profiled person. Finally, there’s a section listing all the files you have exchanged as attachments with the profiled person.
Each of these sections has its own search, and allows you to open the entries it contains.
There are some bugs. In my tests, Xobni mistakenly merged the profiles of a few people. It also failed to recognize that the emails bearing different versions of a person’s name — like “Thomas” and “Tommy” — but with the same email address, were the same person and should have a single profile. Xobni also can cause glitches during manual syncing of BlackBerrys and other devices. The company says it is working on fixing those bugs.
But, overall, Xobni is a smart addition to Outlook that makes email much more useful.