A New York Times article today has reignited the email overload complaint in the blogosphere, refreshing now famous email bankruptcy posts of Fred Wilson, Larry Lessig, and Jason Calacanis.

All three are anchored in the tech industry, which makes it even more interesting that all three discount technical solutions:

Mr. Cuban and Mr. Arrington likewise could resort to a technological solution, preparing an auto-response for their public e-mail accounts that would warn strangers that the volume of e-mail precluded even a skimming, let alone dispatching responses. Yet both have resisted that course. (From the NYT)

But there are a few technical products that aim to save a user from email overload:

  • Qurb (Outlook) – allow emails from an approved senders list and quarantines email from other senders for a more leisurely review, ensuring the user handles correspondence from those closest to him first. This seems like a dangerous concept, since many users may treat a quarantine like their spam folders which are increasingly infrequently checked, and it would be easy to miss a message from someone not on the white list (or someone who is on the white list but is emailing from a different email address). It’s more spam oriented than attention or productivity oriented.
  • Boxbe (Yahoo mail, Outlook) – prioritizes email from people with historical correspondence and prioritizes email from the users connections on various social networks. The product uses an approved guest concept that functions like a white list, and will auto-populated the initial list. Incoming messages are ranked 1-10 based on the integrity of the message. Like Qurb, Boxbe appears closer to a spam filter than an attention tool that helps direct focus to specific legitimate messages.
  • ClearContext (Outlook) – bills itself as a information management system and promises to go beyond Qurb and Boxbe‘s spam-filtering to tackle productivity and help the user manage legitimate email overload. One key feature is the ability to identify important emails. It’s strong positioning, but the demo reveals that the method of determining a message’s importance is the same as Boxbe, ranking contacts by email frequency. This will not help the user prioritize a critical and important email from an infrequent contact, and may even designate it relatively less important. The rest of the suite has interesting features that help a user manage email, set up appointments, etc – but most of these features look like a streamlined
    approach to setting up rules that can already be created in most email
    programs.
  • GTDInbox – (GMail) applies a getting things done methodology popularized by David Allen to GMail via a firefox plug-in. The software is a limited effort by Andy Mitchell and Paul Thompson, and adds interesting features into the native GMail application (similar to Xoopit‘s approach). Like ClearContext, the suite is designed to facilitate faster and more competent managing of email, but does nothing to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • Xobni (Outlook) – improves Outlook via a set of features that tackle some of Outlook’s biggest weakness – adding fast search, easy appointment scheduling, threaded conversations, attachment discovery, and phone number extraction. It also adds some entertaining but less useful features such as email analytics that may ultimately turn into an interesting method of prioritizing email. Until then, it’s an excellent improvement to Outlook and a smart acquisition for Microsoft.

[Please note that I am excluding most spam software and spam filters since
we’re referring to legitimate email overload – actual email from
contacts and colleagues seeking a response.]

Bottom line: All in all, it’s easy to see how these products can help a user
manage their email more efficiently. At the same time, it’s also easy
to see a user get equivalent benefits from a good spam filter and a
good set of email rules to filter and manage email. Until technology
can understand what a person is paying attention to at a given time
(tough challenge!), or semantically parse an email to determine
importance (tougher challenge!), the email overload problem will
persist.

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