It might be time to give Outlook an efficiency makeover with Xobni.

For all its market penetration,

Microsoft's

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Outlook -- the benchmark email, calendaring and communications program for businesses both big and small -- remains relatively unmodified by the vast majority of users. Though a growing number of third-party add-in programs can add functionality to Outlook's email and calendaring program, few users choose to download them. Most small business users simply install Outlook as is, then maybe toss in a spam filter or two, and then proceed to stumble through the avalanche of email in their inbox.

That there is functionality to be captured with Outlook plug-ins is without question. There are simply too many programs out there not to help at least some businesses.

For example,

OutTwit

allows Outlook to control Twitter conversations. A very nice feature supported by Microsoft lets users send

short text messages

from Outlook. A

Skype

toolbar can be dropped into Outlook. Or

LinkedIn

connections can be run from Outlook.

All of these programs, effective as they may be for certain businesses, are still very much at the nerds-only end of the techno sand box. But that may be changing.

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Earlier this year, San Francisco-based startup Xobni (that's inbox spelled backwards) released a downloadable plug-in for Outlook that just about any technophobe can install and use. I have been testing the program for the past several months. And while far from perfect -- it takes its toll on processing power -- Xobni is an interesting program that could improve the efficiency of e-mail.

From the

Xobni Web site

, the plug-in can be downloaded and minutes later the system installs a separate Xobni window in Outlook that organizes e-mail in some interesting new ways.

Right from the beginning, Xobni can optimize search for email on older versions of Outlook that don't support the new search features found in Microsoft's Vista, the company's most recent operating system. I found the performance far better than other third-party desktop search tools, such as Google Desktop.

Xobni also does a nice job of presenting threaded conversations in a way that is a bit easier to manage than through either Outlook or

Google

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. Visual layout also was cleaner, with nice windowing and other functions. And Xobni made it easier to find a given note in a long conversation.

Xobni also does a good job of developing analytic data from email. It can tell what time of day a user should expect a return email, so a user can anticipate when he will receive the emails live. It also shows how many times a user has chatted with a given mailer so the correspondences can be ranked.

Xobni also attempts to pull phone numbers from emails, which can be placed inside contact management tools. And in a content-oriented business like mine, it does a very nice job of accessing attachments. Messages also can be ranked by what was sent with them.

As I said, Xobni is far from perfect, as it can drain a computer's processing resources. I found that it squabbled with other plug-ins I was using, such as the online calendar sync feature with Google Calendar. I also found that the number-scanning features weren't stable -- I had to double check many of them for accuracy.

But Xobni is worth a try if a computer is running Outlook 2003 or earlier, or if a user is running Windows XP box and has to wade through 75 folders to find things.

And Xobni creates the notion that an inbox should no longer be organized by folders. Search tools like Xobni are now the way to find what you need. Just keep information in active or current folders and then as messages are acted upon they can be moved to an archive folder. Search functions can then be used to find older material.

Xobni may not be the perfect solution. But it at least allows users to forego sifting through folders looking for that one specific message from a particular client.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.