IBM Research working toward a better in-box

In open defiance of an established cliche, 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.

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 Corp. 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.

ReMail also includes a concept called a Thread Map, a visual representation of an e-mail thread that shows a blue circle to represent the selected message, a hollow circle to represent messages the user sent and black circles to indicate unread messages. A series of arcs show the connections between the messages and clicking on any of the circles opens the corresponding message.

"This is a way for users to get a sense how many messages there are in a thread, which ones are unread and if other people involved in the thread have responded," says Gruen.

Maps are a theme that runs through the prototype. A Correspondent Map groups messages by senders. The senders can be grouped by domain and multiple senders within a domain can be organized by the number of message they have sent. Highlights order messages from newest to oldest and show which messages await a response. A Message Map uses icons to represent messages in the in-box and allows users to search on authors, status or attachments to show relationships between messages.

The CUE team also has expanded on in-box folders with a concept called Collections, which can be stored in-sight or out-of-sight. Messages can be put in multiple collections and those in the out-of-sight collections are not visible in the in-box. The Collections can also be arranged in any order, including the traditional alphabetical order.

The ReMail prototype also stores communication from various sources, including discussion lists, blogs, and any systems that can push out updates. All the correspondence can be organized using the same tools for organizing standard e-mail messages.

"It doesn't help if we do this with only one aspect of work, that being email," says Gruen.

Integration with calendars lets users drag and drop messages onto the calendar to bring up scheduling forms pre-populated with dates and times and relate those calendar items back to messages in the in-box. Chat threads that are spawned by instant messages can be archived and sign-off messages are automatically displayed to a recipient when a sender signs off.

The ReMail prototype was built using a series of components stitched together to form the client. The component model aligns with IBM's Workplace strategy, which encompasses a number of collaboration components such as Workplace Messaging that can be run on top of WebSphere and the DB2 database.

"Part of the power of the component approach is testing individual ideas and seeing how they work," says Gruen.

And if they do, IBM can plug them into its product portfolio on a piecemeal basis.

But for now, users seeking evolutionary tools for organizing corporate in-boxes will have to wait until IBM's inside-the-box thinking moves outside the lab and into a product box.

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