Product Review: Page (1) of 3 - 02/21/06 Email this story to a friend. email article Print this page (Article printing at page facebook

SproutIt Mailroom Has The Seed Of A Good Idea

By Esther Schindler
E-mail client applications are designed for individual users. Sure, many e-mail applications give you features that acknowledge the existence of other people, such as calendars and who's-online IM icons, but the process of writing and responding to messages is a solo activity.

On the other hand, the tasks of a small business employee are rarely solitary. Anyone who works with a team, however small, passes messages back-and-forth. They may be requests ("Linda, could you find out why that order hasn't arrived?") or ongoing conversations ("What should we do about the problem with the Canadian supplier?").

And, no matter what the business size, we all struggle with the challenge of keeping up with our mail. How many hours do you spend in front of the computer, instead of being a professional whatever-you-are?  Because of the volume of mail we all deal with, it's too easy for a e-mail message (and thus an important business issue) to be lost.

Launched at the DEMO conference a few weeks ago, Sprout Systems, Inc. thinks it has the answer.

The hosted e-mail management system, targeted at small businesses, promises to help organize your company's e-mail. End-users can access their e-mail from anywhere, on any OS platform, as long as they can reach a Web browser. However, while SproutIt Mailroom has some innovative features, the best we can come up with is, "Nice prototype. Let me know when you have it working."

I'll Answer That Message Tomorrow. At Tara.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I found a message in my in-box, which I had fully intended to answer but somehow forgot about. Even if I never lost business as a result, I left some poor soul wondering why I didn't care enough to respond.

SproutIt Mailroom assumes that every e-mail message is part of a conversation? and it tries to prevent you letting a conversation die of starvation. So, your in-box -- which SproutIt calls the "Needs Attention" list -- is sorted by message priority. High on the priority list is "how long has this thing been lying around?" A message received from your accountant three weeks ago, to which you haven't responded, will sit at the top of the list, bleakly reminding you that you still haven't gotten those numbers together. The RFQ you didn't respond to because you had to look something up? well, that'll hover at the top of the list until you deal with it.

When you respond to a message, it disappears from your Needs Attention box, and falls into the All Messages collection. If you need to refer to an old, closed conversation, you can search in All Messages (we'll get to that in a moment). SproutIt gives you the choice of responding to a message or "closing" the conversation (with a sometimes-annoying dialog box to remind you of the foolishness of this choice); also, it never actually deletes a message from the in-box, just moves it to All Messages.

The priority-setting doesn't apply only to lone messages that appear in your in-box. Because SproutIt Mailroom treats each message as part of a conversation, you see the entire thread of messages, making it easier to follow the discussion.
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In general, I like this feature, because I have lost track of entirely too many conversations.  But SproutIt's implementation is clunky. When you're writing-and-responding to people, which is typical for most small businesses, the threaded conversation model works great. But not every message is part of a conversation, and plenty of them can be deleted without guilt. I don't need to keep a "you have successfully subscribed to the Whatever List" notification, and I'm a lurker on plenty of discussion lists in which I rarely need to respond. Clearing those out of my Needs Attention box, one at a time, is an irritating process.

SproutIt Mail has no way for me to set my own message priority, irrespective of message response or arrival time; for example, a message from my boss should almost always pop to the top of my list, or at least be highlighted in some way.

While the built-in threading is nice, it's also limited. Message titles should always reflect what you're talking about. Unfortunately, I found no way to change the message subject to reflect the changing nature of a conversation. Your initial message might have a subject line of "What are your shipping policies?" but a more appropriate message thread title, by the end of the conversation, might be, "FedEx says it should arrive today."

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