Considering the importance of e-mail to most computer users, it's amazing that these programs are something of a software wasteland. If you want a straightforward way to read Internet mail, your choices are limited and not very good. A startup called Stata Labs aims to change that with an e-mail program curiously named Bloomba.
Corporate workers on Microsoft (MSFT) Exchange systems have just gotten an impressive new version of Outlook (Tech & You, Oct. 27) as part of Office 2003. But this complex mail, scheduling, and contact-management program is overkill for many. Meanwhile, other Windows mail programs seem to be fading away. Microsoft denies reports that it's killing off Outlook Express, a free component of Windows. But the program has not been overhauled in two years, and there's no sign of a new version in the works. Netscape is barely hanging on, and Qualcomm's (QCOM) Eudora has a minuscule share of the Windows market. Browser-based alternatives to mail programs are fine if you don't get many messages. But they're slow, they don't let you work offline, and they make it difficult to archive messages.
All current mail programs rely on folders as the main way to organize messages. The folder is a useful metaphor harking back to printed memos and filing cabinets, but it may not be the best way to deal with thousands of electronic messages that need to be searched. Unfortunately, most e-mail search functions are pitifully slow and offer seriously inadequate query tools.
SEARCH IS THE ESSENCE OF BLOOMBA. The Bloomba e-mail program indexes content as messages arrive, which makes subsequent searches lightning fast. A search for words in the text of hundreds of messages can be completed almost instantly. This allows many conventional folders to be replaced by what Bloomba calls "views." A view is simply the results of a search: Matching messages are saved, and the contents are updated as new matches arrive in your inbox. I have, for example, set up a view that lets me see all messages from family members and another view for any messages referring to a trade show. By contrast, folder-stored messages can only be in one folder. But a message can appear in many views, giving searches great flexibility. For example, a note on a planned meeting with Microsoft at Comdex would show up under "trade shows" and "Microsoft."
Bloomba's search is far more powerful than the lame search tool in Outlook Express. And it's far easier to use than the Outlook version, which can require a dozen or more mouse clicks just to set up a straightforward query. I would like to see Bloomba's search get even better, with features similar to those found in powerful text databases such as LexisNexis. It would, for instance, be a plus to look for two words occurring not as a phrase but in close proximity to each other.
Bloomba can be downloaded from bloomba.com for $49.99. The price includes a copy of SAproxy Pro, an effective and easily set-up version of SpamAssassin, an open source mail-filtering tool. That's a fair price, and Bloomba is attractive to anyone with a standard Internet mail account, including most ISPs, premium Yahoo! and MSN services (but not AOL), and many university systems.
The question is whether enough people will agree with me to make Bloomba commercially viable. Stata Labs was started by its chief technologist, Raymie Stata, and his father, Analog Devices (ADI) Chairman Ray Stata. It probably enjoys far more patient capital than most startups, but the history of companies competing with products that Microsoft gives away, even if the free offerings aren't very good, is discouraging. Bloomba is a worthy product, but Stata has a tough business challenge ahead. By Stephen H. Wildstrom