Archive for November, 2007

Wall Street Journal article on Email’s Friendly Fire

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

I was interviewed last week by Rebecca Buckman of the Wall Street Journal for her article, Email’s Friendly Fire.  Becky has covered business technology for a while and is quite a tech savvy journalist, so it was a very interesting discussion and a very good article.  I’m quite happy about the way the article turned out – and especially the fact that ClearContext was featured throughout it.

One nice thing about having many thousands of customers is our ability to provide a wide range of reference customers to speak with reporters.  Thanks to all the ClearContext IMS customers who volunteered to help us out by speaking with Becky, and special thanks to Mukesh Lulla from TeamF1 and Eric Liebeler from Honeywell, who were both featured in the article.

Mukesh spoke about his use of ClearContext inbox management features such as Defer and AutoAssign functionality to quickly process 300-400 messages daily.  Eric spoke about the contact prioritization and message prioritization features that help him identify which messages to focus on first, as well as the topic and filing functions that automatically keep his email organized.

Becky touched on a number of other interesting points. The "colleague spam" she mentions is the type of email thread we had in mind when we created unsubscribe functionality.  Other points such as the increasing volume of incoming email from sites like LinkedIn and Facebook as well as other communications mediums delivering data into the inbox are things I’ve written about in my posts on the future of email.  It’s not just increasing volumes, it’s the very nature of email that continues to change, creating an opportunity for all sorts of innovation.  Becky also mentions IT software policies as a possible obstacle to deployment of new technologies, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the freedom users have to install Outlook plug-ins on their machines. 

One of the comments from Microsoft mentions the value of tools like these for users who are completely unorganized pilers as opposed to fairly organized filers.  A large focus of ours when we developed ClearContext IMS v4 was making it useful right out of the box for even the most unorganized of email users.  In addition to introducing a simple 3-step workflow strategy that anyone can get started with immediately to help stay on top of things, we’ve really increased the level of behind-the-scenes automation we provide to users.  For example, appointments can be scheduled and to-do’s can be set up  with a single click, and all of that  information is automatically combined with related tasks, appointments and emails in a project dashboard. That level of automated organization combined with improved Microsoft search and other desktop search products lets any type of user take full advantage of our products.

It’s good to see awareness building around both the challenges and opportunities that exist in the email world, and it’s especially good to be recognized as one of the companies leading the charge to help make email a more valuable and productive tool for both individuals and businesses.  Thanks, Becky!

How Privacy and Data Rights Policies Really Stack Up

Monday, November 26th, 2007

, Jason
, Howard Lindzon,
and many others
have been writing about privacy and data ownership issues on Facebook. But I haven’t seen a comparison of policies
showing how Facebook actually stacks up against other players in the space.

So, I decided to take a look and see what policies are
actually in place around the web. Following
are links to privacy and terms of use policies for a number of social
networking (Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace), major web service provider (Google,
Yahoo, MSN/Microsoft), blogging (WordPress, SixApart) and user-generated review (Yelp, Flixster) sites. For each of them, I focused on two specific

1) What is their policy on sharing your personal

2) What rights do they require you grant them to content
you create on their site?

Most all of them have similar policies in place regarding sharing
information for legal reasons, but not all of them explicitly and unambiguously
state they will not share your personal information with
marketers/advertisers. And only about
half explicitly limit the license granted on your content only for use in
providing their service.

Here’s an overview:


Best: LinkedIn, MySpace, Google, MSN, WordPress, SixApart,
– these sites have clearly stated policies not to share your information with

Rest: Facebook, Yahoo, Flixster – these sites may share personal
information with marketing partners and advertisers without your consent

Data Rights

Best: LinkedIn, MySpace, Google, WordPress, SixApart, Yahoo
(photos, graphics, audio, or video)
– these sites utilize your content in a limited
manner as necessary in providing their service

Rest: Facebook, Yahoo (Content other than photos, graphics,
audio or video), Flixster, MSN, Yelp
– these sites require you grant them a
license for potentially much broader usage of any content you put on their
sites (in the case of MSN, granting the rights to the public rather than just MSN and in the case of Yelp, potentially preventing you and your friends from creating your own database of reviews you posted on Yelp)

And here are the actual links and excerpted text from the


We share your information with third parties only in limited
circumstances where we believe such sharing is 1) reasonably necessary to offer
the service, 2) legally required or, 3) permitted by you.

irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully
paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly
perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part)
and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or
otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to
prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content


· We will never rent or sell your personally identifiable information to
third parties for marketing purposes

· We will never share your contact information
with another user, without your consent.

royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable license to use this
information in the course of offering the LinkedIn service.


will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe
that disclosure is necessary: (1) to conform to legal requirements or to
respond to a subpoena, search warrant or other legal process received by, whether or not a response is required by applicable law; (2) to
enforce the Terms of Use Agreement or to protect our rights; or (3)
to protect the safety of members of the public and users of the service.

a limited license to use, modify, publicly perform, publicly
display, reproduce, and distribute such Content solely on and through the MySpace


Google only shares personal
information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the
following limited circumstances:

We have your consent. We require
opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.

By submitting, posting or
displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide,
royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate,
publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which
you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This licence is for
the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the


Microsoft does not sell, rent or lease its MSN customer lists
to third parties.

However, by posting or otherwise
providing your submission, you are granting to the public free permission to:

  • use, copy, distribute, display, publish and modify your
         submission, each in connection with the service;
  • publish your name in connection with your submission;
  • grant these permissions to other persons.


Yahoo! does not rent, sell, or share
personal information about you with other people or non-affiliated companies
except to provide products or services you’ve requested, when we have your
permission, or under the following circumstances:

  • We provide the information to trusted partners who work
         on behalf of or with Yahoo! under confidentiality agreements. These
         companies may use your personal information to help Yahoo! communicate
         with you about offers from Yahoo! and our marketing partners.

· With respect to photos, graphics, audio or
video you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas
of the Service other than Yahoo! Groups, the license to use, distribute,
reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on
the Service solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made

· With respect to Content other than photos,
graphics, audio or video you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly
accessible areas of the Service other than Yahoo! Groups, the perpetual,
irrevocable and fully sublicensable license to use, distribute, reproduce,
modify, adapt, publish, translate, publicly perform and publicly display such
Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate such Content into other works
in any format or medium now known or later developed.

WordPress will not rent or sell potentially personally-identifying and
personally-identifying information to anyone.

By submitting Content to Automattic for inclusion on your Website, you grant
Automattic a world-wide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce,
modify, adapt and publish the Content solely for the purpose of displaying,
distributing and promoting your blog.


We do not share your information with unrelated third parties for their
direct marketing purposes.

By uploading, placing or posting Content through this Site or
the Services, you grant Six Apart a world-wide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive
license to reproduce, modify, adapt and publish the Content solely for the
purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting such Content on Six Apart’s
Internet properties.


We do not sell, rent, share, trade
or give away any of your personal information, unless required to by law.

By posting Posted Content on the Yelp Site, you agree to and
hereby do grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant,
Yelp, its contractors, and the users of the Yelp Site an irrevocable,
perpetual, royalty-free, fully sublicensable, fully paid up, worldwide license
to use, copy, publicly perform, digitally perform, publicly display, and
distribute such Posted Content and to prepare derivative works of, or
incorporate into other works, such Posted Content. This license is
non-exclusive, except you agree that Yelp shall have the exclusive right to
practice this license to the extent of combining your Posted Content with the
Posted Content of other Yelp users for purposes of constructing or populating a
searchable database of business reviews.


We may share your information with third-party service
providers including advertisers to help us provide or improve the service.

Flixster may share profile information in a personally identifiable
manner and aggregate usage information in a non-personally identifiable manner
to advertisers and other third parties in order to present to members more
targeted advertising, products and services.

However, by uploading, posting, emailing or otherwise
transmitting any User Submission to Flixster or on the Site, you hereby grant
Flixster a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, perpetual and
irrevocable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, prepare
derivative works based on, perform, display, publish, distribute, transmit,
broadcast and otherwise exploit such User Submissions in any form, medium or
technology now known or later developed, including without limitation on the
Site and third party websites.

What are friends? Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I got an email from Macy’s today.  It was actually from my "friends" at Macy’s wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving.  Now, it so happens that I actually DO have a couple of friends who work at Macy’s, but I’m pretty sure they had nothing to do with that email, and none of the people in online marketing or ecommerce or whatever else at Macy’s responsible for that email are actually my friend.  Neither are the people at Yahoo, GoDaddy, my insurance companies, my credit card companies, various casinos, or countless other "friends" wishing me well.

This doesn’t really bother me, but it does make me think about a broader topic related to the word friend. The meaning (or at least connotation) of that word seems to keep getting more and more diluted, and in recent times it’s Facebook that is leading the charge to genericize (hmm, apparently that is not really a word) that word.  When it comes to online communications, the word friend is largely becoming synonymous with the term contact.

What’s the point?  None, really, just a random observation.  Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends reading this blog – and to the rest of you, too!

The four A’s of “Inbox 2.0”

Monday, November 19th, 2007

I need to come up with a new term for "Inbox 2.0" because I find it pretty annoying.  Maybe next-generation messaging or the Intelligent Inbox or something like that.  But on to the topic at hand…

Matt Blumberg made a great post today on Automated Relevance. The entire post is well-worth reading, but I think the most important statement is this one: "I think of relevance as the combination of Relationship and Context."  He also writes some good stuff about the significance of the channel/medium of communication, but imo while it’s important, that is very much secondary to relevance.

A lot of what Matt wrote touches on three themes I’ve spent a lot of time on around messaging.  Following up on the Three I’s I wrote about, here are four important A’s when it comes to next-generation messaging.

Automation – As the volume of information we are presented with continues to increase.  Forget about just increasing email volumes – I now check Facebook updates at least once a day, check Google Reader blog feeds a couple of times a day, have various LinkedIn communications to manage, and occasionally take a peek at Twitter – all new channels of information that just plain didn’t exist in my information processing pipeline until relatively recently.  Managing that volume of information requires automation, plain and simple.  The simplest piece of that is automating mundane processing steps like filing and categorizing information.  More interesting automation can take place at a higher level by intelligently utilizing the context and relevance of information (including the context in which the information is being accessed) to figure out what types of things users are likely to want to do with that information.  I give some examples in my post The Context Web.

Aggregation – Two facets of aggregation are important when it comes to processing ever increasing volumes of diverse information.  One is aggregating together content from the same streams/channels.  Message threading is an obvious basic first step, which is becoming increasingly common.   Aggregating messages around  related content is a next step.  The second facet of information aggregation involves combining information across different channels.  Pulling together related email information, combining it with relevant schedule and project information, external information streams, and related content on the web.  Zimbra (now Yahoo) is one company that has already started to create that sort of integration to external content from within email.

Accuracy – This is an often overlooked, but critical point, when creating intelligent information solutions.  At ClearContext we spend a lot of time balancing the line between accuracy and automation.  The more structured and well-defined information is, the more accurate you can be at doing intelligent things with it.  In many areas, though, accuracy needs to be effectively 100% or else the solution loses the bulk of its value.  If someone needs to double-check their spam filter, the utility of that tool has dropped tremendously.   If an application causes you to miss a big meeting because it deemed that information unimportant, you can pretty much kiss that program goodbye.  A classic solution to this problem has been to require large amounts of markup/metadata to be provided.  However, adding a big burden on the user’s normal workflow just doesn’t work.  A more pragmatic approach is to increase the level of automation based on the confidence levels of accuracy.  Newsletter?  Yes, file that away in the appropriate folder.  Note from an important contact that is 80% likely to be a business context and 20% to be personal in nature?  Bring that to the user’s attention and let them do the final step in filtering.

APIs  – Brad Feld wrote about email APIs today.  Programmatic access to next-generation messaging information is definitely important, but I think of APIs in a fundamentally different way when thinking about this stuff.  Rather than thinking about them in the traditional sense of data/process access methods, I think the more important ones are information-oriented and context-rich APIs.  What do I mean by that?  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure.  But I don’t think what’s really needed to take solutions to the next level is a bunch more APIs to grab messages and contacts.  Instead, I think we need constructs that let us deal with information, relevance, and context.  Much of that can even be data-driven, using information contained in the message itself.  Looking at services like TripIt on one side and notifications coming into the inbox from various Web 2.0 apps/sites, one can definitely make a case for email itself being the API for email – or at least an important self-contained component of the next-generation messaging API.

We’re currently prototyping a lot of features in/around these areas.  I look forward to sharing more specifics in the upcoming weeks and months.  In the meantime, here’s an overview of stuff I’ve written recently touching on these topics:

Semantic Web is great, but… – The basis on which a lot of this stuff will be built.  Best part of this post is the set of links to good writing on the structured/semantic web.

Contact segmentation… – This will be the basis for a lot of the context/relationship stuff Matt wrote about in his automated relevance post.

Email is sexy again – Contact relationships and priority – a key building block in analyzing email communications.

The Context Web – more thoughts and links on the semantic web, and my take on what to call it.

Inbox 2.0 – Response to NYT post that rekindled a lot of email-focused discussions.

Three I’s of Inbox 2.0 – Information, Interface, and Integration

And of course, this post, the four A’s – Automation, Aggregation, Accuracy, and APIs.

The three I’s of “Inbox 2.0”

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Having read dozens of blog posts and articles about "Inbox 2.0" the most common reaction I’ve had is "yawn." Now, there are a number of people who get it – I linked to a few of them in yesterday’s post.

However, most of what people are talking about when they talk about next generation email and Inbox 2.0 is really just Address Book 2.0.  Attempts at universal, always up-to-date, web-based address books have been around since I started using the Internet.  Perhaps the best-known of the latest crop of such companies is Plaxo, which has had a few takes at/around the challenge.  I remember using one really hyped one around the time was pretty popular.  It worked out so well I can’t even remember its name now.

Things have changed a lot since then, and notions of universal digital identity are becoming more realistic, and definitely more important. People’s digital identity now spans far beyond email, reaching across multiple sites with profiles, various e-commerce sites, blogs and discussion forums – I could go on for a long time.  Site like RapLeaf, Chainn, and ProfileLinker are just a few of dozens of sites trying to pull together consolidated digital identities online.  In fact, that’s actually worth a post of its own that I’ll tackle soon.

And that’s what a lot of the "Inbox 2.0" articles were all about – using email as the basis for the types of things social networking sites are doing and companies like those are doing.  But in reality, most of the people you care about emailing, you already KNOW that information.  OK, great, now I have Joe’s birthday and favorite books linked in my email address book –  value add for sure, but nothing that really drives the email experience forward.  Making the address book better with richer profiles and contact information and other social networking style info is beneficial, but doesn’t really address the main problems with email.

For that to happen, I think it comes down to three important I’s:

Information – This is the most important thing that email brings.  Every email address is surrounded by a wealth of information and context.  Yet all of this information is spread across various message threads from various contacts.  Utilizing (and storing in an easily accessible manner) this information to understand the nature and relationship of emails and contacts is a key first step.  The value of all that information in the email is pretty obvious, so I’ll skip the examples.

Interface – That’s the next big one.  Email clients are, even new web-based ones, fundamentally unchanged from email clients of 10 years ago.  Even something as new as Gmail is basically the same messaging metaphor that has been in place forever.  Yet email has transcended messaging to become something much bigger.  Is it a one-to-one communication medium?  Is it a project management  app?  Is it  a time and status reporting app?  Is it a group collaboration tool?  I could keep going, but the answer is simple.  Yes.  There’s a huge opportunity for  advanced interfaces to better support all of these activities that people do via email, as well as creating better interfaces to deal with specific types of individual messages based on the nature of the information contained in them. 

Integration – Email messages are one silo of information.  Contacts are another.  Appointments, hey over here in my calendar.  Tasks?  Yeah, here’s a to-do list.  That’s information that is often stored close to each other, but still in separate silos.  Intelligently integrating them is an important step forward.  But beyond those, there’s a wealth of external data that begs to be integrated within the context of email discussions.  In some cases that’s simply data from another communication medium – IMs or SMS or feeds.  In other cases, it’s contextually related data like maps to addresses (Zimbra/Yahoo is one company that has started to touch on that).  And this can extend to integration with other applications that interact with email-based data.

And there are plenty of other I’s like interaction, identity, and input that also will come into play in the winning solutions.

This is the opportunity for the next-generation of email applications, not just a souped up address book or email-driven Facebook clone.

“Inbox 2.0” – Email as social networking platform

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Saul Hansell blogs about Brad Garlinghouse from Yahoo calls “Inbox 2.0”.  I’m a little surprised the post is getting so much buzz, since the WSJ wrote about it a month ago.  As I wrote then, “contact priority is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to
information that can be learned from looking at the context and
relationship of information stored within email.”  I’m glad to see all the excitement, though, because this is at the core of what we focus on at ClearContext.

Marshall Kirkpatrick gets it right when he writes that “We’re not talking about the number of times people email you – we’re
talking about the percentage of times you open those emails, the
keywords used in them relative to your personal/work profile, there are
metrics so crazy we can hardly imagine that are available for
determining the importance of people in your life.”

A number of others are talking about the broader opportunity here – leveraging the information and context that exists within email to make interactions more powerful.

Larry Dignan – “Increasingly, social networking is looking like a feature more than a
business. There will be big ramifications to consider as social
networking becomes integrated into your everyday applications.”

Brad Feld – “The real data lives in the gazillions of Microsoft Exchange servers
that are distributed around the world and connected to this magical
thing called the Internet.”

Om Malik – “the relationship buckets (and the level of intimacy) are already predefined and have relevance.”

Don Dodge – “Most people don’t want to leave email and jump into a separate
application to collaborate on projects. Email is where they naturally
communicate and collaborate.”

There’s an incredible amount of stored relationship information within email that is currently not utilized.  That information extends far beyond just the contacts, which is where the initial focus from Yahoo and Google lies, as they along with many others try to emulate the success of the model Facebook has utilized.

However, email is not the same as social networking, and people use it very differently.  In email, prioritization of contacts and messages is important, but all it does is identify what information is most important for you to look at.  Dashboard_screen_printTo actually build a more powerful system, you need tools to efficiently manage that information, and provide context for your information and interactions.

We’ve been working on prioritizing contacts and messages for a few years at ClearContext.  It’s an interesting problem and we’re glad to see a lot more attention being paid to this area.  What we realized a while back, though, was that the real value lies not in the prioritization itself, but in doing interesting things with that information.  Combining all of that data within the context of email (and paying attention to what people are actually DOING in the client) provides the ability do things with email that are a lot more intelligent than simply displaying a message.  With ClearContext IMS we’ve focused on combining information from a few silos – email, tasks, and appointments.  However, there are a lot more silos to tackle, both inside and outside the email world.

Email is not going to replace or become like Facebook or LinkedIn.  Those sites provide a good platform for certain types of interactions as well as linking together many different chunks of the “social graph.”  However, each individual’s personal “social graph” lives within email.  And not only does the contact information live within email, so does the CONTEXT information.  Intelligently using that information in conjunction with advanced interfaces on the client side will make the entire email experience more powerful and productive for people.  And done right, it will also make people’s experience with any email/contact based site or application more powerful, because it will be driven from a set of rich profiles full of deep context, not just a list of names.  That’s the evolution of email, not just a better Inbox.

How relevant are “closed” enterprise software systems?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

There has been a lot of talk over the past couple of years regarding the impact of new technology that focuses on the delivery of software – SaaS/web-based vs more traditional packaged apps.  Other debates revolve around the merits of proprietary platforms vs. open-source technology. 

A lot of that to me simply distills down to questions of economics and implementation.  Important questions from a business perspective, no doubt, but often times not nearly as fundamentally important questions as they are made out to be.

Looking at a lot of categories of enterprise software, I think a more important question is the impact of closed vs open systems.  By closed in this context, I’m speaking of systems that live internally within corporations.  A few of the categories where this has major relevance include SFA, CRM, Collaboration, and Knowledge Management.  For many years, software providers have been trying to help companies maximize the utility of information within their organizations and streamline the way that information is used by people to get things done.

In many of these categories, there’s currently a broad chasm between "internal" apps that look at information within an organization and apps that are built on top of data that lives on the web.  These used to be very distinct silos of information and activity.  However, with the way people now work, these areas are starting to overlap – a lot.

If traditional enterprise software providers aren’t careful, much more lightweight applications that pull little pieces of data out from the enterprise from lots of different places will quickly become more powerful and relevant than the big, deep applications currently in place within the enterprise.

Email dying (again, yawn)!

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

Valleywag has a post on the decline of email.  A number of commenters there explain that the numbers actually show an INCREASE in total email usage, even though the percentage of Internet traffic (in the UK) devoted to webmail has dropped.  That’s no surprise, as web usage continues to expand into a greater variety of uses. This blog post links to a few more articles – surprise, surprise, email just keeps "dying" again and again.  Or, wait, is it actually sexy again? The fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of people, email remains their primary medium of online communications. And how do these services that will purportedly supplant email actually notify their users of activity?  Yeah, email.

Pushing out a release always takes longer than planned

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Payment processor

That’s just a small fraction of the list of things that needs to get finished/written/notified/updated.  No matter how many times I do this, the product ends up being the only one that doesn’t have little loose ends to be tweaked all the way to the last minute.  And that’s probably only because I’ve always done enterprise server software or packaged software applications.  I’m sure we’d be messing with web-based software right to the last minute.  But we got it out.  Time for some sleep now, and more details on the process later.  A number of these sub-items are worthy of posts.