Microsoft's Answer To Death By Email: Meet Clutter - InformationWeek
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11/11/2014
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Microsoft's Answer To Death By Email: Meet Clutter

Yes, Clutter. This new tool for Microsoft Office 365 users aims to learn which messages are most important to you, and restore order.

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Email remains the life's blood of business communication, but all too often, the flow of information becomes clogged by an excess of messages. Microsoft on Tuesday launched its latest attempt to solve this problem: Clutter, a new email feature for Office 365 business customers that learns which emails a user is likely to find important, and moves less crucial messages to the background.

Originally announced in April at Microsoft's Exchange Conference, Clutter relies on Office Graph, a machine learning technology that maps the user's relationship with people, events, documents, projects, and other types of information. Office Graph allows Clutter to recognize that a user has ignored a co-worker's email about his new cat but read and responded to another colleague's message about an upcoming campaign, for example. Observations such as this help Clutter determine which messages to prioritize.

From the user's perspective, Clutter operates something like Gmail's importance ranking, but in reverse; whereas Gmail partitions emails it deems "important" into a secondary folder instead of in the main feed, Clutter puts the important messages front and center, with less important content relegated to a "Clutter" folder.

[Looking to tidy up in other areas as well? Read Facebook News Feed: 4 Ways To Cut Clutter.]

Put another way, Clutter is designed to be a much smarter spam filter. If Clutter concludes that a given message is unimportant, that message won't be deleted and will remain accessible in the Clutter folder.

Clutter will work with a range of clients and devices, including Outlook, Outlook Web App, and devices connected to Exchange ActiveSync. That said, the feature will be disabled by default. Each user controls whether Clutter is activated. Once the feature has been enabled, users won't see an immediate change. Microsoft says Clutter will kick in once Office Graph has collected enough information to "confidently" help users to be more productive.

Clutter won't interfere with any rules the user has already established to organize incoming emails. If messages from certain people are set to automatically route to a particular folder, for example, Clutter will not act on these messages.

Users can turn off Clutter at any time. In May, Office GM Julia White told InformationWeek that company execs understand the stakes if Clutter isn't as good as advertised. "We have to do it right, or people will turn it off and [lose] trust in it," she said, noting that internally, Microsoft has "been testing this stuff with email for years and years."

Microsoft is rolling out Clutter in waves. Those enrolled in the company's First Release program, which lets enterprise users get the earliest access to new products and features, will get Clutter first, with availability for other business users to follow. Microsoft is also initially launching the feature only for English-language customers. Support for additional languages is planned.

Microsoft isn't the only big player that wants to make email cleaner and more useful. Google, for example, recently launched Inbox. Whereas Clutter is part of the existing email interface, adding only an additional folder, Inbox offers a new organizational paradigm.

But Clutter is only one of the Office Graph products with which Microsoft hopes to tame unwieldy inboxes. Delve, a recently-launched Office 365 app, functions as a social feed for one's work life, using Office Graph's observations to show the user information that might be useful. According to Microsoft, the goal behind Delve is to make users feel as though information comes looking for them, rather than the other way around.

Microsoft targets the enterprise with Office Graph, whereas Google is focusing more on consumers with Inbox. A Microsoft rep told InformationWeek that Clutter is only available for Office 365 business customers, and that for consumers, the company has invested in email management features such as Sweep, which lets users delete thousands of messages with only a few clicks.

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2014 | 11:20:24 PM
Exchange limitations
Microsoft has set themselves quite a challenge here; if they can deliver, then the world will love them. Screw it up and nobody in business will touch the product going forward.

The comments about sorting by sender are interesting; Exchange is well known for setting aside such a stupidly small space for server-side rules, and running them client-side is really not practical across multiple access platforms. I've tried sorting incoming mail in Exchange using server side rules and I found myself rapidly out of space for rules.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
11/15/2014 | 7:54:43 AM
Filters
I have this option in Thunderbird for years. It is called email filters and works great! All incoming email gets filtered and stuffed into various folders properly named and organized. Some emails get thrown away immediately (because some folks do not honor the unsubscrie, grrr) and it all got even better with using masked emails that with a simple click I can set to forward or discard.

In typical Microsoft fashion, they are years late to the game and now come across as if they invented email, the internet, and yes, the toaster as well.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/13/2014 | 10:46:30 AM
Re: Clutter Consistency
I'm very curious to see if they've really cracked it. Microsoft has been hearing skepticism about Clutter since they announced it back in April. As mentioned, Julia White conceded to us back in May that Microsoft is walking a fine line between succeeding, and that Microsoft could severely damage customer trust if Clutter doesn't work. On a practical level, I don't see how Microsoft's machine learning can be so good that I wouldn't miss any important messages-- or at least so good that I don't mind if I miss an occasional message because Clutter is otherwise so helpful. But at the same time, Microsoft officials have listened to this sort of skepticism without batting an eye. Maybe the company's caught up in its own hubris-- but maybe they've got a winner. We'll see.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/13/2014 | 10:30:48 AM
What's important?
I applaud any effort by Microsoft to declutter email, but I'm skeptical about an algorithm ranking my email by "importance" as importance is subjective and ever-changing. An email source can be irrelevant 10 times and then suddenly important. I worry about a crucial email getting dropped into a spam-like folder and I miss it. I think Gmail's tabs have the right idea in filtering by category (primary, social, promotional) and is being pushed further by Google Inbox. 
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
11/12/2014 | 8:01:20 PM
Re: Clutter
Awwww. @DavidFCarr. I miss Clippy I agree with the reservations people have with software like this. Messages come in three "colors:" black, white, and gray. Software like this sees in black and white. Sometimes there's no substitute for human intervention.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/12/2014 | 5:05:19 PM
Re: Clutter
@ThomasClaburn a great name, you say? Is it unfair that I read Clutter and immediately thought of Clippy?
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/12/2014 | 1:50:06 PM
Re: Clutter Consistency
Doug just crystallized why what MS is asking Clutter to do is such a hard task. I dread my spam filter folder and yet every so often, there is something I want. Has MS really cracked the ranking secret?
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
11/12/2014 | 1:35:38 PM
Re: Clutter Consistency
Even if this tool is more subtle than filtering by source, the matter of consistency just might be a key test for Clutter. Humans and events aren't consistent. Sometimes communications from a particular contact or about a particular topic can be very unimportant, but then there might be rare occasions when those same contacts or topics become VERY important. Will Clutter know the difference? If, for example, I consistently ignore a particular PR contact pumping a particular tech vendor nine times in a row, will Clutter suddenly realize that I might be very interested in that 10th contact, say, when the vendor finally makes a high-profile customer available or highlights truly breakthrough capabilities?

Say what you will about (lowercase) clutter, but when it's organized in last-in, reverse-chronological order, it's consistent in a good way. Yahoo! sent many email user for a loop when it suddenly imposed its "conversation" view whereby responses to earlier emails were suddenly clumped together with the original email. That made it hard to find old email messages and caused a revolt, a final straw that moved many long-time Yahoo customers over to GMail and elsewhere.

Long story short, Microsoft had better be careful with this Clutter feature, making it easy for users to experiment with it and turn it off if they don't like it.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/12/2014 | 12:02:55 PM
Re: Clutter
"Filtering by source isn't necessarily going to work consistently."

I think Office Graph is more sophisticated than that. It doesn't filter by source, per se, but rather according to a matrix of interactions that include but are not limited to who sent a given message. That said, I share your caution. Even if Clutter is right 95% of the time, that would mean I'm missing 1 out of every 20 important messages. For most of us, that "success" rate would cause more problems than the "convenience" of Clutter would solve. At the same time, when I brought this line of skeptical questioning to Office GM Julia White back in May, a month after Clutter was first previewed, she seemed to understand that if people miss even one vital email, they'll turned off Clutter forever.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
11/12/2014 | 11:55:34 AM
Re: Clutter
Right, and filtering by topic is almost as problematic. I may not care to see coworker's cat photos, but if my boss sends some around, I might want to know. Plus, this is one more folder to forget to check.
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