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Email is 'a choke point'

Email overload is becoming a common problem - and may well increase as more Web-enabled devices come onto the market
Written by Stephen Withers, Contributor

If you struggle to keep up with today's email volumes, what will you do when you get ten times as many messages, when a variety of devices send you email alerts and when corporate information systems bombard you with data that they 'know' you are interested in?

That was the question posed by Bill French, chief ingenuity officer of collaboration software developer Starbase, at a seminar hosted by the Victorian branch of the Australian Computer Society. While he did not claim to have the answer to this problem, he did suggest some possible directions.

Part of the problem is that if you were going to design a system for business communication, email as we know it today would not be the result. A checklist of required attributes would probably include security, integration with other knowledge processes, awareness of the user's presence and location, device-independence, role-based as well as person-based facilities, and efficiency from the user's perspective. "Email is practically the opposite of what we would build," French said.

On the subject of user efficiency, French pointed to the way that when you read an email sent to you at multiple addresses (just to be sure it reaches you ASAP), it still shows up in all your other mailboxes. Giving a personal example about the need for location awareness, when he checked his email that morning from his hotel room, the messages at the top of his inbox were administrative items that would only be relevant if he was back in his office in the US.

"We could never get away with this (inefficiency) in any other product development," he said. Email "seems to be a choke point that needs to be eliminated."

Business communications software needs to have some kind of 'understanding' of the context of a message: who the individuals involved are and what they do, allowing it to categorise the message in some useful way. This would allow the message to be automatically typed (in the sense of data types rather than data entry), opening up the possibility of managing the information contained in the messages.

"We don't have the time to categorise manually any more," he said. We need to separate content from meaning, just as we have learned to separate data and presentation when building a Web site, French suggested, admitting that this requires "an attempt to form a theory of the corporate mind."

Some software developers are already trying to retrofit some of these ideas to the existing email infrastructure.

French demonstrated Enfish, a program that associates and indexes emails and attachments you have exchanged with other people, along with related news items, notes, Web-based information (including that made available through Web services and Web folders) and so on.

"There are some basic assumptions we can make that makes email more productive," he said. A simple example is the way people who all work for the same company usually all have email addresses in that company's domain.

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