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Sampling SaneBox, a service that prioritizes your incoming e-mail

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 15, 2011 09:00 AM

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Have you ever heard someone complain that they get too few e-mails? Me either.

Yesterday, I got 252 e-mails (not including stuff that was automatically dumped into my spam folder.) So I was eager to check out SaneBox, a service developed by Boston entrepreneur Stuart Roseman that aims to separate your urgent e-mails from messages that can wait. While it originally launched last year for Gmail users only, it was just last month that SaneBox began supporting people who use a wide range of other e-mail services, including AOL, Yahoo, MobileMe, and Microsoft Exchange. (The expansion was a strategic necessity, after Google introduced its own free e-mail filtering service, Priority Inbox, last year.) SaneBox costs $4.95 a month, but offers a one-month free trial.

I was initially reluctant to let some unknown piece of software handle my precious incoming e-mail — who knew what it might do? — but I overcame that reticence and have been testing SaneBox for several weeks now on my primary e-mail account (which uses Gmail.)

First, the pros. SaneBox is incredibly easy to set up, and kick-starting the service's free, 30-day trial takes less than five minutes. You tell it your e-mail address, and if you want, you give it permission to see who your friends and contacts are on services like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. (It then assumes you want to see e-mail from all these folks.) SaneBox is extremely good at keeping non-essential e-mails out of your inbox. Just about everything that lands there is a message from an actual human being whom you know — no e-mail newsletters, spam, or enticing discount offers from e-commerce sites. That means that everything in your inbox either needs a quick read, or some action on your part. E-mail that SaneBox determines doesn't require your immediate attention gets put into a separate mail folder called "SaneLater."

SaneBox sorts your e-mail by looking at your relationships — like whether you've corresponded with someone before, or whether they're a Facebook friend — as opposed to reading the content of the message. (The software does try to make some judgments about incoming e-mails from their subject lines, though.) If SaneBox makes a mistake, and directs a message from an important sender into your SaneLater folder, you can quickly train it by simply moving that message into your inbox. Problem solved forever.

I also love SaneBox's special "SaneBlackHole" box. If you receive e-mails from people or companies that don't include an "unsubscribe" option, rather than writing them a message and hoping they take you off their list, you just put one of their messages into the SaneBlackHole, and you'll never see a message from them again. You can also also route non-urgent messages to boxes called SaneTomorrow, or SaneNextWeek, and they will return to your inbox a day or a week later. (I don't really defer stuff that way, so I didn't use that feature.)

SaneBox also works with any e-mail program that you may use, either on your main computer, a phone, or a tablet computer. I didn't have to do anything special to get the SaneBox folders to appear on my iPhone.

Finally, it's also a good thing that the service is easy to switch off if you don't like it. I killed it once after a few days, and then re-started it, with no lost messages or other mishaps.

Now, the cons. We all develop habits around dealing with e-mail that are tough to drop. Like a Forty-Niner panning for gold, I'm used to scouring the subject lines in my inbox for sparkly stuff worthy of my attention — even if it's a first introduction from an entrepreneur I've never met, or a news item sent by a public relations person I've never dealt with before. With SaneBox on, those messages wind up in the SaneLater folder, since the service is primarily focused on your established relationships with people. As a result, instead of looking at one inbox, you have to occasionally consult SaneLater to see if there are messages from "unknown senders" that might still need your attention. For some people, consulting SaneLater once or twice a day might be sufficient. (You can also wait until the service sends you a daily e-mail "digest" of all the mail that it has corralled into the SaneLater box.) But if you're dealing with e-mails from prospective customers, or, in my case, news that may be breaking in the next hour or two, you'll probably want to look at SaneLater more often.

I didn't like having to think about incoming messages being funneled into two different inboxes, and so I turned SaneBox off after just a few days. I got a message shortly after from SaneBox's founder asking me why I'd quit. When I told him, he created some new digest options, like the ability to get the digest sent three times a day instead of just once. Still, scouring those digests three times a day to find the message or two that require a response to me feels like just as much work as keeping an eye on my old, pre-SaneBox inbox. (I already feel it's too much work to monitor my spam folder for important stuff that gets stranded there.)

So I'm not yet feeling like a more streamlined, productive human being since switching SaneBox on. (Right now, I'm thinking that I'll stop using the service once my free trial ends, rather than pay the $5-a-month subscription.) While my inbox is certainly tidier, I don't feel as though an extra half-hour has been injected into my day.

But SaneBox could prove really helpful if you primarily communicate with the same cluster of people, and if the occasional e-mail from a random person doesn't tend to be time-sensitive.

Roseman, SaneBox's founder, told me that while the service is designed for people who get a lot of e-mail, it doesn't work well for control freaks who insist on seeing every e-mail as soon as it lands. I guess that must describe me. To quote from one of Aerosmith's worst songs, I don't want to miss a thing.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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