Web-based e-mail is the Toyota Camry of Internet services — popular, reliable, and dull. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are surging, but the use of such services as Google Inc.’s Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Microsoft Corp.’s Hotmail is down more than 30 percent among people aged 12 to 24, according to the market research firm comScore Inc.
Still, nearly everybody uses e-mail, though often clumsily. Spam is always a problem, but it’s even harder to cope with all the messages we do want but can’t easily manage.
Luckily, there are quite a few e-mail tools to help us along. I’ve been checking out several, including FollowUpThen, a “snooze button’’ for incoming messages you’re not quite ready to face; SaneBox
programs that sort incoming messages; and Smartr Inbox, a powerful Gmail tool that integrates your e-mail and social networking services.
The major webmail services offer plenty of help already. Microsoft, for instance, is upgrading and rebranding Hotmail. Now called Outlook.com, it has a livelier interface and smart integration with Facebook and Twitter. For instance, incoming Facebook messages pop up inside Outlook as live text messages. Outlook.com also leverages Microsoft’s SkyDrive
cloud storage service to help users send file attachments as large as 300 megabytes.
Outlook.com automatically sorts certain mail into separate folders. Say you get a Facebook message, it’s instantly placed in a social networking folder. Incoming photos from friends are slotted into a photo folder.
There are online tools that bring the same kind of smart sorting to other Web-based mail services. OtherInbox Organizer, a service for Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and AOL Mail, does quite a good job of automatic sorting. You sign up at OtherInbox.com; there’s no need to download a software client or browser plug-in. Organizer asks to log into your e-mail account, then scoops up all the messages and begins sorting them. The category folders will appear in your browser next time you check your webmail service.
Regular messages from the Internet real estate service Zillow go into the real estate folder, for example, while incoming messages from Netflix, Amazon.com, and Lowe’s Home Improvement go into the shopping folder. I didn’t have to set this up, Organizer figured it out for itself.
Boston-based SaneBox Inc. offers a feature-packed alternative to Organizer. SaneBox isn’t as automated as Organizer; you must train it to sort your mail into various categories. And it isn’t free. It’s priced at $4.95 a month, or $55 a year.
But SaneBox has appealing extras. One example: It double-checks your spam filter. If it spots a message that looks legitimate, it plops the e-mail into a “not-spam’’ folder. Also, it can remind you that you haven’t heard back from someone you’ve e-mailed. Just forward a copy of the message to a “remind me’’ address — say, “email@example.com.’’ If the recipient hasn’t written back in a week, SaneBox will send you a reminder message.
The same technique lets you put off replying to incoming messages. Not ready to pay your credit card bill? Have SaneBox resend it to you tomorrow or in a week. It’s like a snooze alarm for e-mail.
By the way, a company called FollowUpThen offers the same service for free. Forward an e-mail on Thursday to an address like “firstname.lastname@example.org,’’ and you’ll see it again on Saturday. Indeed, if you use FollowUpThen and OtherInbox’s Organizer, you’ll get the best features of SaneBox without paying a dime.
While tracking your messages, keep tabs on the people who’ve sent them with Smartr Inbox. Currently available only for Gmail, Smartr Inbox is a software plug-in for the Google Chrome, Firefox, and Apple Safari browsers. It also works on iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android smartphones. Get it at xobni.com.
Once installed, Smartr Inbox analyzes every name in your address book and links to your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. When you get e-mail from someone you know, up pops his address book information, a listing of his most recent e-mail messages, and his latest tweets and comments on Facebook or LinkedIn.
Hop directly to his Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter profile page with a mouse click. You even get a history of your previous e-mail exchanges through the years, and a listing of mutual acquaintances.
Products like Smartr Inbox, Organizer, FollowUpThen, and SaneBox remind us of how efficient and powerful e-mail can be. It’s like trading in the Camry for a Prius hybrid, only a lot cheaper.