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Review: Xobni Extends Outlook’s View, But at a Cost

Review: Xobni Extends Outlook’s View, But at a Cost

Review: Xobni Extends Outlook's View, But at a Cost

    Outlook is a well-established presence on the business desktop, providing millions with their email, calendar, contacts, and tasks. It’s such an institution, in fact, that when Microsoft radically revamped the Office suite’s interface in 2007, it left Outlook largely unchanged.

    Although it’s big and sluggish, there’s no denying that Outlook does what it’s supposed to do. Not quickly or with style, but consistently and effectively nonetheless. The thing is, though, that we have moved beyond just email as our major form of business communication. In the increasingly real-time and social world, a big ol’ email client seems a little… old-fashioned.

    Xobni is an attempt to bring Outlook into sync with the socially-networked world. Available in a free and paid “Plus” versions (the paid version offers advanced search capabilities and calendar functions), Xobni adds a new pane to your Outlook window packed with information about the sender of whatever email you’re currently viewing or the contact you’ve selected.

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    Working with Xobni

    20091111-Xobni-screenshot

      The image to the right is what Xobni looks like on my system. I’ve selected one of my own emails from the “Sent Mail” folder and obscured some of my personal information, of course.

      At the top is a “business card” view with my phone numbers and email addresses, as well as my title and the company I work for. Below that is a graph of how many emails I’ve sent and received to and from this contact (which is me, which may be why the numbers are odd), but that’s just the default – the five buttons above that chart allow me to select different functions. If I click the orange button, I get actions I can perform relating to the contact – make an appointment or send an email, in this case. The other three buttons open the contact’s LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter profile. (You can pick and choose several social network functions – other options that I did not choose are buttons for Skype and Hoovers company search.)

      • LinkedIn gives you their location, current company and title, and number of connections, plus a link to their full profile.
      • Facebook gives you your contact’s “Wall” and a link to their profile.
      • Twitter gives you your contact’s status updates, plus buttons to view their profile and follow them – you an also post updates through Xobni, though it’s far from a replacement for a full-featured Twitter client.

      Basically, the top of the Xobni window is devoted to information about your contact. The next part is about your relationship with that contact.  The “Network” part is the most mysterious to me; according to their website, Xobni analyzes the “From:”, “To:”, and “CC:” fields of incoming emails to determine who among your contacts the sender also has some connection to. For instance, if I have the CEO and the CFO of a company in my address book, and I get an email from the CFO that’s CC’ed to the CEO, Xobni knows that the two are connected.

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      “Conversations” condenses all my previous exchanges with that contact into threaded discussions. Click on a discussion and you can read the messages in the thread, see who was involved in the conversation, and pull out any files exchanged. (You can also hover the pointer over a discussion and a pop-up will preview the first few messages in the thread.) A slider at the top allows you to move from the first line or two of each message to full messages. Click a message in the thread and the message itself opens in the Xobni bar, with buttons to reply or forward, or to open in an Outlook window.

      Finally, “Files Exchanged” is what it sounds like – a list of every attachment the contact has ever sent you or that you’ve sent to them.

      At the very top of the Xobni window is the search bar, allowing you to search both contacts and email messages. The results are broken into 5 categories: People (contacts with your search term in their name, company name, email address, etc.), Messages (any email with your search term in it), Files Exchanged (any attachment with your search term in the filename), Appointments (any appointment that includes your search term; this is technically a “Plus” feature – clicking an appointment returned in search in the free version will open an upgrade pitch), and Tasks (again, any task with your search term in it).

      Verdict: Is Xobni useful?

      Xobni helps uncover a great deal of information, most but not all of which is particularly useful. I can’t imagine what use it would be to know that a particular contact tends to email me in the afternoon more than the morning, but it’s kind of interesting to look at. The social networking features are the most useful part, I think – already I’ve discovered profiles for and added on LinkedIn and Twitter a client that I’ve just started working with.

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      Much of the usefulness of Xobni is hampered by the fact that, like Outlook itself, it’s fairly slow and resource-intensive. For example, it took nearly a minute hovering my mouse over a discussion with 24 messages in it for the pop-up to populate with message previews! Searching takes significantly longer than Google Desktop’s Outlook plugin – and even longer than searching the whole desktop from the Google Desktop sidebar.

      Now, that could have just been my PC – it’s a few years old, with a 2.4 GHz Athlon x64, a gigabyte of memory, and Windows XP with Office 2007. Hardly a speed demon! But a search for “Xobni” on Twitter reveals that I’m hardly alone in finding Xobni too slow. Here’s a sample of messages just from the last couple of hours:

      • “all xobni did for me was sloooooow down outlook. didn’t keep it long.”
      • “installed xobni… again… we will see if my laptop can handle it this time”
      • “I had xobni. it’s heavy, and not really effective or accurate. had many issues with that.”
      • “Xobni is a Really good product but occasionally it stalls outlook for a while.”
      • “my biggest problem comes when I try to read the conversation between some of my contacts with xobni.”

      To be fair, there are positive mentions, too, like this one from an obviously pleased user:

      • “I’ve been using Xobni since around Feb. 2009. Kind of hooked on it. “

      (Incidentally, the Xobni team is quite active on Twitter; comments about Xobni are often replied to by @xobni within minutes!)

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      Xobni creates its own index of your email, so it definitely needs a lot of resources. It is possible that it’s not Xobni’s fault that it tends to be slow – perhaps Outlook, as big and ponderous as it is, just isn’t a good platform for third-party applications – but it is Xobni’s problem. While it provides some useful information and functionality, especially related to social networking, none of the information it provides is worth waiting for, especially if I can get the same information quicker just by Googling it.

      People with older machines — or lower-end new machines — just aren’t going to get much out of Xobni. If you have a more powerful computer, though, Xobni might well be worthwhile. Fast searching, threaded discussions, and social networking interface all make Xobni a useful product, provided you don’t spend time waiting for it to respond.

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      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

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      Last Updated on January 21, 2020

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

      The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

      Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      How to Self-Taught Effectively

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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