The Google of Email?

Bloomba, a new email program based on a powerful search engine rather than folders, may be the answer to Outlook's problems.

When I checked my email recently, after a two-week vacation, I was greeted with more than 1,200 new messages. It's a common workplace plague: Most of the stuff was spam, out-of-office bounce-backs, and ominous "you are over your storage limit" reminders. Yet somewhere amid the detritus were a few messages I actually needed.

To compound matters, even with the advanced find function, Outlook didn't always retrieve messages that I knew were there. It didn't help that Outlook misapplied my "rules," sometimes copying messages to different folders, sometimes moving them to the right folders, and sometimes not running at all.

Grrr. Microsoft's Outlook is the dominant email system in business today, used by 50% of American workers, according to Ferris Research. Yet it doesn't really work that well. Can't someone imagine something better?

The folks at Stata Labs, a San Mateo, California-based software company, already have. Their Bloomba 1.0 aspires to be the email client to kill all email clients--"the Google of email," even. I put Bloomba 1.0 to the test, and I came away very impressed.

Bloomba is based on a search engine-style toolbar, rather than a hierarchical system of folders. The program has a familiar look: Outlook-like menus, and a top-line toolbar with familiar icons for send/receive, compose, delete, etc.--plus delete as spam, which handily tells the software to eliminate any future messages from the sender before they hit your inbox. Immediately below this row of icons, however, is a search toolbar that looks like the one on your Web browser. You use it the same way: Type in a keyword, hit return, and see what turns up.

This is Bloomba's great innovation: the ability to retrieve comprehensive search results from within one's own inbox. Searching for the keyword "Bloomba" in my inbox, for example, quickly turned up messages sent to me by someone with a Bloomba email address, emails from my editor with "Bloomba" in the subject line or message body, and messages that I sent to execs at Bloomba while experimenting with the product. Bloomba even searches text attachments.

This powerful feature makes folders largely unnecessary. If you insist on filing, Bloomba still lets you. But Bloomba's search functionality and its limitless storage capacity ensure that you'll never need to file a message again, and that you'll always be able to find what you're looking for in a matter of seconds.

So if Bloomba's so great, why aren't we stampeding to Stata Labs' site (www.statalabs.com) and handing over $49.95 for a download? There are several big obstacles. Most critically, Bloomba only works with POP-3 email accounts--so most workers, whose corporate email is handled through Microsoft Exchange servers, are out of luck. Given that Bloomba is aimed at very high-volume, power email users, this represents a serious failing.

And for all its bugs and limitations, Outlook includes functions that many of us aren't willing to live without: calendars, to-do lists, Notes--and the ability to sync all these items, as well as email, with our handheld computers. Bloomba's first version has none of these, and its contact database does not import Notes from Outlook. Stata claims that these deficiencies will be addressed by its 2.0 release, due February 16.

The bottom line: Bloomba 1.0 is an incredibly innovative product that turns the way we think about email entirely on its head. Searching, not power-foldering, is probably the wave of the future for serious email communicators. But it's not yet ready for prime time. Curious early adopters, as well as those not trapped by a corporate Microsoft Exchange server, should check it out. Everyone else can wait for future versions that have worked out the kinks. If Stata does deliver a more robust Bloomba--and I'm betting it will--Outlook may finally have serious competition.

Update: The company now claims that Bloomba 2.0 will be available for purchase in May 2004.

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