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IBM Research working toward a better in-box

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December 17, 2003 02:51 PM ET - In open defiance of an established cliché, IBM Research is thinking inside the box -- the e-mail in-box, that is. And the results may one day be a breath of fresh air for every over-stuffed and unorganized e-mail client in corporate America.

IBM’s Collaborative User Experience (CUE) team is two years into its Reinventing E-mail project, affectionately known as ReMail. The project’s objective is to find ways to build better e-mail systems. The effort includes a recently unveiled prototype client designed to improve the “killer app of the connected world.”

The usefulness of that killer app is under attack from torrents of e-mail and floods of spam.

“E-mail plays an important and centralized role for a lot of people so it becomes important to have more control over it,” says Dan Gruen, a research scientist at IBM and one of the leaders of the ReMail team. “It’s important that your e-mail client help manage your attention.”

CUE’s ReMail prototype client is a three-pane interface that can be customized with a number of components to show such things as a calendar, a buddy list, and message threads along with a standard list of e-mail messages.

The client explores innovative ways to view message threads, group messages and visualize connections between messages. It also includes unique drag-and-drop ties between calendars and messages, and chat threads that can be archived along with other messages into collections that can be hidden from view. The client isn’t limited to messages, instant or otherwise, and can receive and store other forms of communication and collaboration including RSS feeds and online workplaces.

“Part of the overload that people have is not just that everything comes in one stream but that it is scattered,” says Gruen. The objective is to bring it all together into something manageable that benefits collaboration, he says.

Some of the research team’s work, notably integration of presence awareness and instant messaging, has found its way into IBM’s Lotus Notes 6.5 messaging client, but the majority of ReMail is confined to the lab without any real timetable for inclusion in products, says Gruen.

And he admits that some of the innovations, especially around organizing messages, are similar to work being done by Microsoft researchers as evidenced in Outlook 2003, which was released earlier this year.

The ReMail prototype, however, has many unique aspects the first being that the list of messages in the in-box is divided using “separators.” The separators sort the messages under headings for each day and the separators can be collapsed or expanded for each daily grouping of messages. Users also can annotate messages using a color-coding system.

ReMail also uses creative highlighting to organize communications. For example, a selected message in the in-box is highlighted in dark blue and includes a number that shows the message is part of thread. The user can place their mouse pointer over the number and see a one-line synopsis of each message in the thread. The messages in the thread also are highlighted in light blue wherever they appear in the in-box so they can be located or they can be “gathered” into a single view.

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