After a long private beta period, the much anticipated Xobni plug-in for Microsoft Office finally went mainstream last week as they opened up the offering to the general public. Press has seemingly always been good to Xobni, they are a favorite of our parent site GigaOm, and their announcement elicited a lot of buzz, including here on WWD.
With all the attention the product was getting, and the promise of “a whole new look at your email” I couldn’t resist giving it a thorough look to see how well it lived up to the hype.
Installation and set up of Xobni was quick and easy. The download was painless with not even an email address required. The installer did alert me that because I connect to my mail via IMAP indexing of my recent items might take a while, and indeed it did take about an hour. The fact that it broke down the set up and indexing into stages was nice though. It let me get started with the product as quickly as possible while it worked on creating a full index at a later time.
The indexing is critical as that is what powers the search, and the Xobni search really shines. The filtering is nearly instantaneous as you type, and the display provides contextual cues as to where your search term appears. I give them really high marks how well they did on this front.
The search box is front and center on the sidebar but it is also filled with a lot of useful information that changes based upon the email that you have selected. It creates a dashboard of sorts for that person, displaying a phone number from their contact card or pulled from the email. It also displays other email conversations (threaded ala Gmail) while another box collects and displays any files you have exchanged.
Particularly handy is the ability to further define your search criteria once you are within a user profile. For example to find specific words within a conversation between you and another party. Again, the filtering is lightning fast.
The social networking aspect of Xobni is getting a lot of attention and indeed Xobni shows you who else a person has emailed and any commonalities that it can determine between you. It’s an interesting take on connecting folks, although I didn’t discover anything earth shattering. I think an eventual hook into other social services like Twitter could enhance this further.
Xobni also offers a time scheduling function where it will automatically extract free time from you calendar and submit some proposed meeting times to your chosen contact. It’s a nice feature if you fully populate your calendar but it would seem that most schedules would require a bit of tweaking before sending.
One of the things that I really like about Xobni is that is useful without being obtrusive. It provides additional, useful functionality without taking over or requiring a change in the way that you work. It’s just there when you need it. The sidebar can take up a bit of screen real estate, especially in Outlook 2007 if you have the To-Do Bar visible, but it can be minimized and tucked out of the way.
I’m not a heavy Outlook user as my mail and calendaring is all done through Google Apps, but I do sync mail via IMAP and find the sorting and grouping features in Outlook to be really useful. The addition of Xobni isn’t going to make me give up my Gmail, but it does make Outlook infinitely more usable, and after just a week I can’t imagine trying to search for anything without it.
At one point, a message at the bottom of the sidebar asked me if I was happy and gave me the opportunity to give them feedback. I didn’t take advantage of it then but hopefully they’ll read this and see what a good job I think they have done so far.
Xobni is currently in beta and runs on both XP and Vista in conjunction with Office versions 2003 and 2007. Their site indicates that support for XP Service Pack 3 is forthcoming but they currently recommend sticking with SP2 if you are running Xobni.
Are you stuck with Outlook? Do you think Xobni could help you use it more productively?