I think it was roughly a year ago that Gordon and I realized we needed to integrate with Microsoft Outlook. We looked up from our laptops and stared each other in the face. We both shared the same terrible, sinking feeling.
It’s hard to describe to non-programmers, or even to non-Microsoft programmers, what integrating with Outlook is like. The best analogy I can think of is trying to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English. The innards of Outlook are archaic. Much of the dos and don’ts of modern application design were learned — the hard way — by the Microsoft Outlook developers over the course of decades. And to my knowledge, Microsoft has never attempted a modern translation of the classic. They’ve put new covers on the old book — improved the look and feel, swapped the icons, etc. — but they’ve apparently left the core exactly as it was written, apart from bug and security fixes here and there.
It’s a difficult job. The only other company I know of that’s doing something similar is Xobni, and they have a much larger programming team — Investors have poured several million dollars into their pockets. And that’s allowed Xobni to give away their Outlook integration for free.
What Gordon and I realized was that not only did we have to integrate with Outlook, we had to do it with a smaller team, on a tighter budget, against a competitor that had foolishly already set the price to zero.
Pure madness, then. But we had to do it anyway.
For an entire generation of knowledge workers, email is collaboration. Regardless of its merits as a collaboration tool, it’s the one they’ve been using for decades now, and it mostly gets the job done at small scales.
So if you want to get these knowledge workers to try something different for collaboration, you’ve either got to get them to switch away from email or you’ve got to integrate with their desktop email client.
There are many, many folks trying to get people to abandon email. There are numerous instant messaging applications, wiki solutions, social media and networking sites, blogging and microblogging tools — on some level, Web 2.0 could be viewed as nothing more than alternatives to email. And thanks to services like Facebook and Twitter, home users are becoming more willing to move away from email as their primary means for communication and collaboration.
But email is the way things are done in the enterprise, and Microsoft owns the enterprise desktop, and Outlook is their email client.
If we want to help people work together, Infovark has to integrate with Outlook. Even if the engineering challenges are large, the competition has more resources, and nobody is likely to pay us a dime for our effort.
Welcome to the sad economics of software start-ups.
If there’s a core architectural principle behind what we do at Infovark, it’s this: Go where the information lives.
At a time where web applications and cloud computing are all the rage, we’ve gone to the desktop instead. Why? Because that’s where the information is. And most of the information on the desktop is locked away in the email client, the largest information silo in modern business.
Infovark digs out email, contacts, tasks, appointments and meeting information from Outlook, relates these items to each other and to the files on your computer, and shares what it finds with you and your peers. Our primary means to do this is through our web interface, but we knew we had to show this information in Outlook as well.
Here’s some early screenshots of Infovark at work in Outlook. These are works in progress.
We’ve also got a tool bar that will allow you to add or remove email from Infovark’s brain. You can also apply ratings to the email or share it with coworkers if you like. (The icons shown here are temporary.)
And finally, here’s a closeup of the Infovark task pane. You can add tags, search the items in your Infovark library, and view related email and attachments. Again, the icons are temporary.
Eventally, we hope to add and expand on what you can do within Outlook. We’d also like to extend these features to the rest of the Micorsoft Office suite. But our primary focus will remain on the Infovark web interface. We’ll be posting screenshots of that in upcoming posts. So stay tuned, and send us your comments!