E-mail is said to be the No. 1 application used by office workers everywhere. But e-mail can also be the No. 1 headache for IT administrators, considering that large companies receive millions of e-mail messages a week, a topic that my colleague Paul McDougall and I explore in our upcoming "E-Mail Beast" feature. Now with wireless e-mail on the rise, companies have twice as many headaches. The good news is technology vendors are coming up with tools to make wireless e-mail more manageable.Major e-mail software providers, including IBM, Microsoft, and Novell, have formed partnerships with technology vendors like Good Technology and Intellisync that extend their e-mail applications to mobile devices, making it accessible to workers while they're on the road. Research In Motion's BlackBerrys are popular among companies because they "push" e-mail from an e-mail server directly to the devices and because they come with all the same functionalities of a desktop e-mail application, such as the ability to send, receive, forward, and reply to messages. In addition to text, businesspeople can also view attachments in common file formats in the BlackBerry e-mail application.
Many companies make the decision to mobilize their e-mail because they claim it will boost productivity: Their workers are always connected to the office and don't miss an e-mail containing time-sensitive information when it comes. But as is the case with porting business applications to mobile devices, reading hundreds of e-mail messages on a tiny PDA or smart phone screen is tricky. There are solutions to the "sore thumb" problem, a common disease contracted by BlackBerry users who spend hours scrolling through their e-mail. RIM, for example, has equipped the BlackBerry software with a filtering engine that gives people control over their e-mail so that they can limit the number of messages they receive on their BlackBerry device by setting filters that monitor keywords and message fields. Prior to version 4.0 of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, users had to set up these filters on their desktops, but today it can be done directly on the devices.
Mobility comes with drawbacks too, like the need to constantly move around. For businesspeople, that often includes spending a lot of time driving. Last month, Intelligent Mechatronic Systems, a Canada-based maker of telematics and automotive safety devices, rolled out (what it claims to be) the first hands-free e-mail system for in-vehicle use. The company's iLane system is a voice-based interface that automatically notifies drivers of incoming e-mail by reading a brief summary of the message out loud. The driver can listen to the entire e-mail message, forward, or compose a response by interacting with the system through speech recognition. Users can also prioritize e-mail based on personal preferences. ILane consists of a small device that interacts directly with Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices and vehicle audio systems or headsets.
With the same idea in mind, Microsoft is bundling Outlook Voice Access with its Exchange Server 2007, currently in beta but due out on the market soon. The app lets traveling businesspeople access their e-mail messages and calendar entries from any phone. So if a person is stuck in traffic on their way to a meeting, they can call into Outlook Voice Access and have their e-mail messages read to them, deleting or replying to each message as needed. The software is part of Microsoft's Exchange Unified Messaging platform, which serves up e-mail, fax, and voice messages in one in-box for easier management of different communications that workers use on a daily basis. This concept of unified messaging is increasing in popularity among mobile users, with software for mobile devices available from voice messaging vendors such as Adomo and Active Voice.
I barely scratched the surface of the e-mail management problem, but there's a lot more to come in the feature, which is running on Aug. 21. So stay tuned!
If you've ever been a victim of the e-mail beast, we'd love to hear your story: What is your worst e-mail nightmare?