Xobni CEO talks about CIOs, Gmail and 'Getting Things Done'

Xobni Corp. is releasing an enterprise version of its Microsoft Outlook search app.

The new Xobni ('inbox' spelled backwards) Enterprise server software lets IT managers centrally deploy and manage the company's plug-in to employees' client PCs, Xobni CEO Jeff Bonforte said in an interview last week. During that interview, he also talked about why the San Francisco startup isn't afraid to buck Web 2.0 peer pressure and how it's catering to David Allen's influential time-management philosophy, Getting Things Done.

Xobni Enterprise is the second for-fee product from the San Francisco startup. In July, it released the $29.95 Xobni Plus , a premium version of its free Outlook plug-in. So far, there have been 3 million downloads of Xobni's free version; Bonforte expects that number to grow to 1 million downloads a quarter by 2010.

Reviewers such as Computerworld 's Preston Gralla have raved about Xobni's fast, precise searches of Outlook e-mails and address books, searches that Bonforte claims actually get faster and more accurate as users' inboxes grow.

Xobni's mini-dashboard also offers Business Intelligence-style analytics of e-mail contacts, ranking them by importance based on the number of e-mails exchanged and how quickly a user sends and receives replies. It also creates profiles of contacts, updating contact information automatically by mining senders' e-mail signatures for new phone numbers, for instance.

"The average address book is 30% out of date. Xobni's is just 10%," Bonforte said.

Xobni has also formally teamed up with LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, so it adds links to a user's contacts' profiles or messages from those networks. Some of these features are, or will only be, available in Xobni Plus, while others -- support for LDAP networking, IT policies and the ability to swap out Twitter links for Salesforce.com or other business-oriented custom ones -- are available in Xobni Enterprise.

"We are super-friendly with IT, and can abide by any general IT policy. Rules are rules," he said.

Xobni Enterprise starts at $30 per user per year for small companies, with volume discounts available.

A former Yahoo! executive, Bonforte admits he gets some heat from his Silicon Valley executive peers, and even Xobni's investors, for catering only to Outlook. Conventional wisdom among the Web 2.0 crowd is that Outlook is the past, while Google's Gmail is the future. He has a ready answer.

"Outlook is the primary inbox for hundreds of millions of business users. It's bigger than Gmail or Yahoo! Mail in terms of unique users," he said. "In terms of time spent, Outlook is not even in the same universe. People might spend 20 minutes checking their Gmail. With Outlook, they spend hours."

Xobni is aimed at anyone receiving more than 80 e-mails a day, people like Bonforte's wife, a sales executive who sends and receives an average of 500 e-mails daily and manages that through more than 200 folders.

Xobni, he said, can free users up from those over-elaborate filing regimens, similar to the way Google's search lets people forego bookmarking Web sites, he said.

More problematic for Xobni than power e-mail filers are those who did the opposite and embraced the dictates of David Allen's Getting Things Done . The Getting Things Done philosophy demands that followers immediately respond, move or delete as many e-mails as possible in order to leave their inboxes clean at day's end.

That would seem to go against Xobni's effort to improve its search index by analyzing as many of a user's e-mails possible. As a compromise for zero-inbox adherents, Xobni can now archive and index Deleted e-mails in the background, as well as Junk e-mails, Bonforte said.

Xobni generally sits as vertical sidebar to the right of Outlook, which raises a questions. With all the heavy analytics it does of e-mails, is the company tempted to sell targeted Web advertising, the way Google's Gmail does?

No, said Bonforte. "We think your in-box is too intimate of a space," he said.

Xobni is already compatible with Windows 7 and will be compatible with Outlook 2010 when it is released by the middle of next year.

Microsoft has said that it plans to improve search for Outlook 2010. But Bonforte isn't worried about Microsoft killing demand for Xobni, in part because he guesses that users would likely be forced to upgrade to the latest 2010 versions of Exchange and SharePoint in order to see any improvements.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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