Katherine Boehret

A Program That Makes Your Inbox Less Scary

For many people, email is the main way they communicate with friends, co-workers and family members. It contains bills, class assignments, trip itineraries, photos and love notes. But as much as it gets used every day, the software that we utilize to read and sort our email isn’t as clever or time-saving as it could be.

This week I tested Postbox 1.0, a program designed to handle your email in a smart, helpful manner. Starting Wednesday, this program is available at www.Postbox-Inc.com. Postbox sorts through your email and detects its contents so you can see Web links, photos, contacts and other items themselves with one button click—whether Microsoft Word (MSFT) documents, PDFs or spreadsheets—without digging through messages. Since its inbox is constantly being indexed, all search queries return near-instant results.


Postbox uses an Inspector Pane on the right side of each email to extract and display elements like images, attachments and contact information.

Postbox’s founders come from Mozilla Corp., maker of the popular Firefox browser, so Postbox is based on Mozilla technology and its security standards. Email is indexed locally on your computer, so none of it is sent back across the Web to Postbox. It uses Content Tabs (tabs are another feature borrowed from Firefox) to help visually organize folders, messages and content extracted from those messages. It displays the most important elements of each message in a right-side panel. Received emails can even be edited so they aren’t sitting in your inbox with subject lines like, “Fw: Re: Re: Sept.” Instead, you can rewrite the subject to something like “Flight times.”

But this program isn’t free like Gmail, Hotmail or other Web-based email programs, nor does it come preloaded on a computer the way Apple Mail (AAPL) is on every Mac. Users can try Postbox for a free 30-day trial period after which each license costs $40, allowing one person to use their license on multiple computers (i.e. at work, at home, on a laptop). For another $20, a Family Pack option will give up to five family members use of Postbox. An additional $25 buys a Lifetime Upgrades plan that entitles you to receive free of charge any major version of Postbox that’s released; other nonmajor releases are free upgrades.

I used Postbox on a Mac and a Windows Vista computer, filling it up with thousands of emails from Gmail, Hotmail and .Mac accounts. It didn’t run properly on my company-issued computer, which is plugged into a network firewall. Postbox says it supports open protocols like IMPAP, POP and SMTP, and that it would work with Microsoft Exchange if Exchange were set to use those open protocols.

For all of Postbox’s terrific features, it can be hard to suddenly see your email in a different way since most of our email programs haven’t changed much in years. Outlook, for example, has plenty of hidden features that many people never learn how to use. Postbox seems to know how slow users are to adapt to change and so it reveals many of its features whenever it gets the chance.

For example, Postbox pops up an alert that shows you how to connect this email program to Facebook and Twitter so that you can post status updates or tweets without leaving your email. These connections also let Postbox try to pull one representative photo for each of your email contacts by matching a name in an email with someone’s Facebook or Twitter name—if you follow the person. It also uses photos assigned to contacts in the Mac OS X address book, which is used by Apple Mail.

Or take a feature in Postbox called Topics. This is a way of auto-organizing messages into different groups after you label them as being part of a certain topic, say “Mom’s Birthday.” All messages in an email conversation are grouped into “Mom’s Birthday,” as are any future responses to the same conversation. Postbox gives you three ways to label an email conversation as being part of a certain topic: from the toolbar, using a Topics button in the message header or by pressing “T” from within a message. You can also select a topic as you’re composing an email, pre-sorting that conversation into a designated topic.

Not everyone will like Topics because, however helpful the feature is, it makes the user do more work when he or she just want to get through a huge pile of unread emails. Labeling each email with a certain topic doesn’t take long, but it’s still an extra step. I would like Postbox to create automatic topics for sorting emails. For example, I recently sent and received at least 50 emails related to rescheduling tennis matches. Even though all the messages had the word “tennis” in them, not all of them were related to the same email, so they wouldn’t sort into the topic I created, “Tennis Make-Up.” Postbox says it has considered automatic options like these and may try to incorporate something similar in future versions of the product.

If my 30-day trial ran out tomorrow, I’d miss Postbox’s Inspector Bar the most. This feature works like a filter, instantly sucking out the most important parts in each email—including messages, attachments, images or links—and displaying them in a blue, right-side panel.

Another useful tool in Postbox is the Compose Sidebar. This also appears as a right-side panel but it shows up when someone is writing an email. This panel can display attachments, images, links or contacts found in all emails so you can simply drag and drop that item into your email as you’re composing it. This took me a while to get comfortable using because I’m so used to hunting through emails for things that I need to find. But once it became a habit, I found myself using the Compose Sidebar often.

If you have Postbox running in the background and you get an email, small notifications appear in the bottom left of your screen telling you which email account received the message and who sent it.

In the Content Tabs, which fill up with all attachments, images, links or contacts found in your indexed email, a feature called the Action Bar lets you save, send, or instantly glance at a document. This saves you from opening each email and its attachment, a process that sometimes requires opening a slow-to-open program to see the document. A slider in this Action Bar lets you adjust the size of images from small to large.

Postbox shines a unique light on email and the way we work with it every day. Not all of its features will come naturally for long-time users of the same email program. But for someone who wants a fast search option built into email, Postbox is a winner.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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