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8/19/2008
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Microsoft Targets E-Mail Overload With Outlook Plug-In

Email Prioritizer uses various algorithms to automatically identify the importance or urgency of e-mail messages delivered into an Outlook 2007 in-box.

Swamped with e-mails? Microsoft wants to take the burden off your mind. Tuesday, the company introduced Email Prioritizer, a plug-in for Outlook 2007 that automatically prioritizes e-mails and allows users to pause e-mail delivery.

Email Prioritizer affixes e-mail with between zero and three stars to represent the urgency or importance of a given message. The program uses a number of algorithms that take into consideration things like the name of the sender and whether the receiver is on the "To" line or the "Bcc" line of an e-mail to determine priority, though at this point Microsoft isn't forthcoming with a full list of exactly what Email Prioritizer takes into consideration.

Users can also set e-mail priorities manually by changing or assigning a star ranking themselves. These user settings can inform automatic prioritization: for example, if someone always sets e-mails from his manager to three stars, those e-mails will eventually begin to arrive already bearing the three stars.

Email Prioritizer also comes with a "do not disturb" feature that allows users to tweak Outlook's settings so that no new e-mails arrive until set periods of time between 10 minutes and four hours have passed. Email Prioritizer comes out of a Microsoft Research project and is a collaboration between Office Labs and Microsoft Research's Eric Horvitz and Mary Czerwinski.

It's not clear when or even whether Email Prioritizer will make it as a feature of Outlook, and for now it won't even be supported by Microsoft. While Microsoft is tweaking algorithms, usage data will report back anonymously to Microsoft. Email Prioritizer is a new product, so it may need to be trained by manually setting priorities at first. Otherwise, as I found out upon testing, the most important e-mails aren't always atop the list.

Office Labs is one of a number of public-facing Microsoft "labs" attached to product groups that Microsoft has created in the past few years, including Live Labs and AdLabs. Its goals, as with the other Labs, are to rapidly prototype and release test applications and plug-ins that may or may not ever make it into products. Among the other things Office Labs has released is a plug-in for Word 2007 that lets users search for a certain menu item that might be hard to find.

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