Email sorting gets simplified

With the average user spending three hours a day sorting out email, a few time-saving tricks could be very valuable

Email's transformation from the days of "Reply", "Reply To All" and "Forward" will get another push Monday with the launch of Abridge, a company that wants to add "Collaborate" to the list of email functions.

Abridge automatically files emails into appropriate virtual folders, sends some missives to public viewing areas for co-workers to read, and files away attachments, said Abridge president Susan Hunt Stevens.

With an investor like John Landry, the former chief technology officer who helped create IBM's Lotus Notes, Abridge is just the latest of a series of companies trying to take email standard programs such as Notes and Microsoft Outlook into the 21st century.

Email has become one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of Internet usage, which just reached an all-time high of 60 percent in all US households.

Most of the latest email players are trying to hawk their wares to businesses, where it's estimated that an average consumer spends about three hours every day dealing with their in-box.

Analysts say it's time for a change. Email may have got faster, and people can send rich media like video or even email with audio. But the basics of having to open up each email and read it have remained the same. Companies like Abridge, Zaplet, Tacit Knowledge Systems and others are trying to change all that -- first on the corporate level, and within a few years, for the consumer.

"There's no doubt that proliferation of email over the last year has really shifted some of the emphasis," said Christopher Todd, a Jupiter Research analyst. "In three to five years, you'll start to see email and instant messaging bleed into one another."

But the one common thread through all the new software applications is the automated reading of email, which continues to raise security and privacy concerns.

It's a moot point now because many email application companies sell their services mainly to businesses for use on their own network systems. In an office environment, "there's no presumption of privacy", said Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation.

But "things will get interesting," once the latest gizmos finally trickle down to the consumer, he said.

Aside from Abridge, one of the new email players is Zaplet, which in October received $90m in funding. The company offers another business email reading service, sending shared email onto a central server. Some of its customers so far include the Republican National Committee.

Tacit Knowledge is a bit older, but just as bold. Its software searches through an entire group of emails for groups of phrases as a way for businesses to discover the supposed expertise of its employees. Tacit's customers include oil giant Texaco.

Investment bank JP Morgan was also testing the email system and was ready to introduce it companywide but was derailed by a merger with Chase. Tacit's future at the new company is in limbo, the company said.

"We use email as a trail of bread crumbs to characterise people," said David Gilmour, chief executive of Tacit.

Even the older established players are starting to take notice. In January, IBM, which owns Lotus, launched its "discovery server". Microsoft is supposedly testing "Tahoe"," which is a Tacit-like service that tries to ascertain what an employee is an expert in by dredging through their emails.

There are other companies that are "pushing the envelope" like MindArrow Systems, which is now testing a way for brokerage firms to send video clips of analyst comments about a stock into email, Todd said.

There's also Radical Communications, which is working on letting a consumer shop directly from an email in-box, Todd said.

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