Xobni Turns Old Emails into a Useful Data Repository

Collaboration & Messaging
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The free plug-in for Outlook promises to advance the state of social networking--for good or bad.


There are two ways to look at email: the masculine view and the feminine view.


The masculine view says that your hard drive is precious, and having excess capacity is far more important than saving a lot of previously read, out-of-date, and often silly messages that just clutter up your drive and slow your computer.


The feminine view says that each one of these emails is precious and deserves to be preserved, that there is a rich fabric of emotional and factual content in the collective accumulation of these messages, and that you should have a means of mining all this data in order to make intelligent decisions now and in the future. The legal view is a subset of the feminine view and says, "thou shalt preserve thy email" because it may be subpoenaed as evidence in court.


I believe the feminization of email is an inevitable occurrence. Have you ever noticed how, during an argument, a woman will dredge up every little infraction ever committed by her "significant other"? It's information that has been archived but suddenly is readily accessible now that an argument is in progress. The whole movement to save email messages and make them available for some future use is born, I believe, of feminine instincts. What you said and what you did will be just as important in the future--perhaps more so--than it was at the time you said it. There will be no escaping the past.


Social networking and the notion of linking people and communications for their ultimate benefit is based on the assumption that people want to help each other and are working together for the common good. However, have you noticed how news organizations lately are delving into repositories, say on Facebook or MySpace, to get information about someone involved in a scandal or accused of a crime? Who you are and what you say is now indelibly etched in the collective social mind.


IBM and Lotus are working on several products to turn social networking into tools for business users. The idea is that there are silos of information stored everywhere--in email and in people's minds as they gain valuable business experience. Having access to that knowledge and knowing where to look for information and expertise can accelerate achieving business objectives. Being aware of people's "connections"--the employers for whom they work, the projects they have tackled, other individuals with whom they associate--can be helpful in identifying human capital important for success on future projects.


I like to think of social networking as the positive feminization of communications. It's making public those assets and experiences that can be utilized for a collaborative effort to accomplish an important goal and shorten the time to get there. We have to take it on faith that by revealing these networks -i.e., our friends and business associates-we won't inadvertently be exposing vulnerabilities someone could use to harm us. I have to wonder, though, when I read about the criticism that Barack Obama has received because of the rantings of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


The march toward online social collaboration has begun, however, and that genie will never be put back into its bottle. The latest development, and one that is generating much buzz, is an add-on to Microsoft Outlook called Xobni. Xobni is a company, a platform, and an application. The good news is that Xobni is a free download. The bad news is...well, there really isn't any, except perhaps that it's still in public beta. Maybe that's actually good news because it means new users still have an opportunity to provide input into the final product. Having already completed a private beta of some 50,000 users, the product is now stable and won't crash your Outlook application.


What Xobni does is give you insight into your email messages and contacts. It creates profiles for everyone you have written to and received emails from (and CCed on any of these emails). Xobni extracts telephone numbers from email signatures and message bodies. It creates message threads, makes it easy to find email attachments, has a fast and intuitive search engine, and offers email analytics. Xobni has just announced that it connects directly to LinkedIn, where it automatically downloads public information about your existing Outlook profiles, including your contacts' photos, employers, and titles from LinkedIn's 23 million professional members. (That feature must first be enabled in Xobni, and it activates upon highlighting a contact). Xobni also can extract calendar information from an Exchange server and present the information as text. All information collected by Xobni is cached locally and can be sorted in a variety of ways and quickly searched.


Development on Xobni began more than two years ago and was the brainchild of grad students Adam Smith and Matt Brezina. Funded with venture capital, the San Francisco-based company launched its private beta last September and opened the product up to public beta in May of this year. What's interesting about Xobni is the way that it is built. Microsoft apparently has released over the years a number of APIs for Outlook, a new one with each version--and a few others--for a total of about eight. Xobni evaluated each of these and came up with a super API for Outlook that is a de facto platform on which future applications could be built.


While the Xobni API for Outlook currently is incorporated into the Xobni application download and hasn't been made public, plans are to release it eventually to the developer community so other companies and individuals can craft applications that run on the Xobni platform. Other providers, such as Salesforce.com, could tie their CRM or other applications into Xobni and/or Outlook through the Xobni API.


Meanwhile, Xobni the company is working on versions to access other email clients, such as Web mail, including providers such as Yahoo! Mail or Gmail. Linking Outlook to information residing on MySpace and Facebook, as well as within other online sources, is likely in the future.


Since Xobni is a free download, the inevitable question arises of how the company expects to make a profit. One idea is to have an advanced or "pro" version for which the company charges. Another idea under consideration is to charge or license other firms that may want to link their applications to users' email contacts. A third source of revenue could be from custom enterprise solutions that meet special needs, such as compliance requirements.


For those who wish to try Xobni, you must have installed either Outlook 2003 or Outlook 2007. Download it from the company's Web site http://www.xobni.com/ or from CNET Download.com. But remember, once you do, the chances that you will be deleting large numbers of emails in the future in order to recapture space on your hard drive may become as archaic as burning down all the trees around your cabin to clear your land.