Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Zenbe: In the Zen Garden of Email

Zen Stones Lake by Nevit Dilmen (GNU-FDL)

What silence! The voice of the cicada Penetrates the rocks

Matsuo Bashō 松尾 芭蕉

Haiku, cicada, rocks and inbox?!! Just putting these words in the same phrase could earn one a nomination for the nut house. I know… I know … but there has been an interesting and vigorous emerging movement in biomimetics where ideas and designs are derived from nature, particularly in the engineering field. Zenbe is not quite comparable to tubercles inspired by a humpback whale flipper or to the Mercedes Benz’ bionic concept car inspired by the boxfish’s sleek form but it is the first email application I have seen where the inbox has evolved into something akin in simplicity to Nevit Dilmen's Zen Stones Lake (see photo above).

Zenbe is a web-based email that functions as email integrator and organizer rolled into one; complete with a task list, a calendar, an address book (plus Facebook) and a “zenpage.” The start-up company based in New York says:

"We started Zenbe because we wanted more out of email. We were amazed at how little email had evolved over the last decade. Instead of becoming easier and letting us do more, email was taking up more of our time while helping us accomplish less. We wanted the functionality and performance of a desktop application, and the simplicity and accessibility of webmail, at the same time, for all our email addresses. We wanted to access more features and services from the internet, without logging into a bunch of different websites everyday. We wanted better ways to share and work with our friends, but we didn't want to abandon email to use them."

Here are the things I like the most about Zenbe:

You can link email accounts into one Zenbe account. Instead of checking your multiple email accounts separately, you only have to check one Zenbe account. You can also configure the setting to send emails from a default account or you can use the drop down option to indicate which email address you want Zenbe to use. The linked accounts may raise privacy issues for some; click here if you want to read the company’s privacy policy.

Simple is attractive to me. Zenbe’s user interface is well, very zen-like; the colors are warm and cool, and the layout is simple, uncluttered and very intuitive. When I say “in the Zen garden of email,” I mean just that. Zenbe has three columns: 1) mail and tags, 2) main interface divided into four tabs: mail, zenpages, calendar and files and 3) a collapsible agenda column – with calendar, address book, task list, option to link Facebook account with Zenbe - you can display or hide the column as desired or needed.

Tags are fabulous! You can tag each email according to urgency, subject, sender, email account, whatever – it’s up to you. You can easily archive and retrieve all emails using the tag function. I would, however, suggest that the developers make the tags display in a cloud format instead of the current column/table format because it would save space and would be a good excuse to do away with the "favorite tags" box (which offers limited functionality as soon as you have over a dozen favorite tags). Other than that, the tags are really cool!

Zenpages has a module layout with the following options: discussion, agenda, page activity, tasks, shared mail, shared files, links, Google chat, Flickr, photos, Picasa photos, Youtube videos, and RSS feed. It is almost like having your own webpage within your email application. You can embed a video or map, for instance, and then invite friends to view it. I created a test page with a map, sent an invitation to an unlinked email address and was able to access the map without a Zenbe account. Zenpage does limit the invitee’s access only to the page you have selected to share, so invitees would not have access to your inbox or the rest of the data in your account.

Note for State Department users: Auto-forwarding of official email is prohibited the last time I look. Check out with your IPC to get the official lowdown on this, if in doubt. Also note that Zenbe is currently still on private beta, which also means there are still bugs being sorted out in the application. You can check out the user forum here. That said, I have linked two gmail accounts easily without any problem and have completely archived the last 30 days of my incoming mail from two email accounts! I must confess that I am now the proud owner of a clean inbox. If you are interested in taking this for a test drive, click here to request an invitation to the Zenbe private beta.

Update 5/14: It looks like Zenbe is now open to the public. Click on the "sign up now" button and you should be up and running. Enjoy!

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