While the latest upgrades to Xobni give Outlook a shot in the arm, they only serve to underline desktop mail’s shortcomings. Giving up on Outlook and moving to Gmail or another web mail service may be better.
Xobni (that’s inbox backwards) turns everyday mail into relationship management by focusing on people, not messages.
In technical terms, the program is a Microsoft Outlook plug-in. It sits on top of the desktop application and digs into Outlook’s data, slicing and dicing it to emphasis your links with other people.
Once the plug-in is loaded and data is synchronised, Xobni’s toolbar occupies the right hand side of Outlook’s main display providing contact information about the person who sent the incoming message.
You’ll see the person’s name at the top of the Xobni pane along with their photo if you’ve stored one in your Outlook Contacts. You’ll also find statistics on how often you have communicated with them and a rank – so you’ll know something about that person’s relative importance to you.
If there is a phone number to be found anywhere in the messages or contact details, that’ll be shown – and it’s clickable. Likewise there’s a link allowing you to quickly schedule a calendar appointment with that person.
Xobni shows recent conversations and email threads between you and the person in question along with clickable links to any attachments that have travelled between you. There are also improvements to Outlook search – though Microsoft’s updated desktop search nullifies the value of this.
Instant productivity payoff
On their own, none of these features are earth-shattering, but together they deliver an instant productivity payoff. You’ll find you won’t need to switch between your messages and contact database – that’s a timesaver in itself. You’ll also need to run fewer searches – just about everything relevant to an email is quickly to hand.
Some of Xobni’s features seem advanced. For example, the program does a pretty job of figuring out when someone uses more than one email address and lumping all their messages together. Another neat trick is the way it mines emails for the names of other people in your contact database, then displaying them in a clickable form.
Xobni isn’t just about improved productivity; it also delivers a fresh people-oriented way of looking at information that will allow you to build better relationships.
So why am I not convinced?
I used Xobni for a few months when it first appeared this time last year. While the application looks good and may deliver a productivity boost to some types of user, I quickly found it wasn’t helping me in any practical way. If anything, it’s reports were a distraction. They are pretty to look at and moderately interesting at first – but that’s about it.
What’s more, Gmail’s functionality has improved to the point where it’s now borderline perverse for a person working alone to prefer Outlook over webmail. Ironically, Gmail’s weakness is the way it handles people. If Xobni’s functionality could be added to Gmail, the developers would have a killer product on their hands.
Finally, I’ve noticed Xobni slows Outlook down and on occasion stops it from working — albeit temporarily.
Xobni may make sense if you work for a company where you have to use Outlook, practically live in Outlook and the support policy is liberal enough to allow you to install it.
To me Xobni is the chrome plated hubcaps and giant tailfins on those beautiful, but dinosaur-like American cars from the 1960s in an era when we’re all driving more practical Toyotas. It an anachronism.