Executive Summary:
Xobni integrates with Microsoft Office Outlook and offers mailbox indexing and search capabilities. Xobni searches your entire mailbox by default and displays results faster than Outlook’s native search functionality. Xobni also offers social networking and analytics features.

When I started using Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 more than a year ago, I was mostly happy with Outlook's feature set, but Outlook's mailbox search feature seemed limited. For example, keyword searches often didn't bring up all the relevant messages I knew were somewhere in my mailbox, and finding a specific email thread was difficult if I didn't know the exact subject line (or wording fairly close to it) of the conversation I wanted to find.

When I read Siegfried Jagott's article about Xobni (see the web-exclusive article "New Add-On Changes the Way You Work with Outlook"), the author's rave review of the tool and its comprehensive mailbox indexing and search capabilities inspired me to try it out. I went to the Xobni website, entered my email address, clicked the Download button, and followed the instructions to download and install the free Xobni tool on my Windows Vista laptop. (Xobni runs on Windows XP SP2 and later and Outlook 2003 and later.) The entire process took about 15 minutes, including restarting Outlook after the Xobni setup. Xobni requires Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 to be installed on your system; if you don't have the .NET Framework, Xobni will download and install it for you, which will add a bit of time to the total installation process. Xobni's support page (www.xobni.com/support) provides a Q&A section and an online user manual that clearly explain the installation process and how to use the product.

Learning the Xobni Way
I consulted Jagott's article to help me get started using Xobni. The first thing I did was resize parts of my Outlook UI to fit in a minimized Xobni pane. Then I clicked the expand button at the bottom of the pane, to open up the Xobni initial view, which Figure 1 shows.

In this view, Xobni displays a variety of information related to the selected message's sender. Clicking a message in my Outlook Inbox displayed a pane containing messages, names, and attached files associated with the message's sender.

I found the statistics at the top of the Xobni pane to be interesting, though not immediately useful to me. For my purposes, the most practical features are the Conversations and Files Exchanged sections, as well as the nifty Schedule time with and Email links under the stats. Clicking a message in the Conversations section immediately shifted the view to all messages in that conversation. The sliding Detail adjuster at the top of the pane is a nice touch, letting you adjust on the fly how much of each message's content you want displayed.

Xobni Search
Most often, when I search my mailbox, I'm looking for a specific conversation on a particular topic or a message with a particular attachment. Xobni helps you quickly find specific messages associated with your search keyword—a name or topic, for example. Although Outlook also lets you search by name or subject, Outlook's search results don't immediately reveal what part of the message contains the search keyword. Xobni does a better job of displaying the relevant parts of messages containing the highlighted search keywords you enter.

Next, I tried out the search bar—a feature I use frequently in Outlook. I wanted to quickly find the latest version of Windows IT Pro's 2009 editorial calendar, so I typed "editorial calendar" in the search bar. Xobni starts searching as soon as you type in a complete word; I didn't need to press Enter. The search was speedy: It took about 1 second to display all results in my All Mail Items folder, compared with 4 seconds using Outlook's native search. Xobni also didn't require me to navigate to All Mail Items; it searches your entire mailbox by default, regardless of which mail folder you're searching from. After I expanded the result list to a detailed view, it took me another 3 seconds to scroll down and locate the exact message I was looking for. Clicking the message displayed a Xobni view of the message, including the attachment. If I had wanted to open, reply to, or forward the original Outlook message, I could have done so by clicking any of the links at the top of the message, which Figure 2 shows.

Social Networking and Analytics
The Xobni interface is geared toward not only the data exchanged in email messages but also the people you're exchanging messages with. Thus, it opens up possibilities for using email for social networking. For example, for any selected message, Xobni displays information about the sender's "network"—that is, the people that the sender exchanges email messages and IMs with. Recently, our group within Penton Media was restructured, and I'm learning who's who among the group managers. By clicking an email from our division leader, I can scan her network list and expand messages to learn more about the corporate leaders she's communicating with.

Xobni
PROS: Easy to install and use; fast, accurate searching
CONS: Doesn't include Outlook Contacts in search
RATING: 4.5 out of 5
PRICE: Free
RECOMMENDATION: If you already like Outlook, Xobni will help you love it.
CONTACT: Xobni • (415) 986-5101 • www.xobni.com

Xobni's analytics feature, which you access via the Xobni menu (flower) icon at the bottom of the pane, gives you detailed mail statistics, such as your overall mail traffic, average total response time, and median response times by recipient, domain, and several other criteria. This feature could be especially useful for tracking customer service response times. In my case, it revealed interesting patterns in how quickly I responded to different individuals (e.g., my responses to internal email messages from coworkers and supervisors tended to be faster than to outside senders). I could use this information to help me respond more quickly to queries from external senders—for example, by flagging such email messages.

I've found Xobni to be an excellent tool for enabling me to use email more efficiently. It complements and enhances Outlook and integrates well with the Outlook UI. My only complaint is that Xobni doesn't search or integrate with Outlook Contacts, nor does it let you import contact information from other social networking sites. If you want to get the most out of Outlook, especially its search facility, I strongly recommend adding Xobni.

Update: On March 26, 2009, after this review was written, Xobni announced availability of version 1.7, the first non-beta release of the Xobni product. According to the vendor, in Xobni 1.7 "users will observe the following improvements:

  • Outlook now starts 31% faster*
  • Xobni Profiles now load 42% faster*
  • Users can control how often and how much data xobni indexes
  • Users can control when Xobni is running

* Users with large inboxes will experience more dramatic improvements."

Xobni also stated that version 1.7 resolves incompatibilities with a number of software products, such as Microsoft Business Contact Manager, BlackBerry with BlackBerry Desktop Software, and Microsoft Office Communicator, among others. You can download Xobni 1.7 at www.xobni.com/download.