Giving the Inbox a Makeover

As Web sites like Facebook and MySpace change the way we communicate online, the IN box—that overflowing, spam-clogged emblem of Internet frustration—is also due for a makeover. Tech companies are working to invent some kind of fusion of e-mail and social networking, which would enable e-mail users to manage their IN boxes and contact lists with Facebook-style networking tools. "People are beginning to say, 'I don't want to go to one site for e-mail, and another site for instant messaging, and yet another site to post on a wall'," says John Kremer, vice president for Yahoo Mail. "I want to be able to manage my communications in a single place in a way that makes me more productive, and makes it a smarter experience."

One of the leading startups in this new field is Xobni. The San Francisco firm hopes to capitalize on dissatisfaction with swelling IN boxes that make the eyes glaze over. "Google organized all the information on the Web," says cofounder Matt Brezina. "Nobody's really done that for your personal information." In the spring, Xobni plans to release Insight, a product that allows users to organize their e-mail according to relationships. The software extracts statistics about e-mail patterns, and then sorts incoming messages according to the relationship the user has with the sender. Instead of a chronological list, Insight displays messages from important people at the top of the IN box.

For each user, Insight can also create a profile that includes contact information and links to previous conversations and is displayed in a sidebar next to the message list. The sidebar also contains what Brezina calls a "hidden social network"—a list of people your correspondent exchanges e-mails with, and also happen to be in your contact list. If you get an e-mail from an old college friend, you'll see a list of those people in your contact list who also exchange e-mail with your friend.

Xobni is looking at other ways to expand the social possibilities of the IN box. One project in development is called Stay in Touch, which looks at your e-mail pattern and creates a list of the people you once sent e-mail to but haven't been in touch with recently. "We call it the ex-girlfriend finder," says Brezina.

Other firms are also trying to build a better IN box. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Yahoo previewed its new Mail software, which offers some of the same social-networking elements as Xobni, like giving higher priority to messages that come from users' friends. Yahoo hopes to launch the software later this year. Radar Networks, another San Francisco startup, is about to launch Twine, which aims to streamline e-mail by storing and sharing phone numbers, favorite links and other bits of information without cluttering the IN box.

Whoever gets the right mix of efficient communication and socializing may become the Internet's next big moneymaker. Four e-mail providers—Yahoo, Google, Hotmail and AOL—now have almost 700 million users, a number that will only grow. "The overloaded e-mail box was hardly the perfect solution to being online," says Tom Glaisyer, an expert in online socializing at Columbia University. "Owning the portal between someone's offline world and their increasingly complex online life is the holy grail."

For Xobni, the grail may be within reach. Earlier this month, Bill Gates, speaking at the Microsoft Office Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif., called Xobni "the next generation of social networking." A few days later, Xobni announced that Jeff Bonforte, vice president of Yahoo Messenger, would become the firm's new CEO. "It's validating for us," says Brezina. "We're at the front of the pack. And we've got a target on our back."