Earlier this week, Google announced the 'Priority Inbox' (PI) which aims to help users sort through emails by having a machine filter and auto-sort messages in your inbox. I haven't yet tested it but conceptually, it's a really great idea, minus of course the most annoying bug of all time.
Such a feature set is not without precedent. As reported by Todd Bishop over at TechFlash today (article), this concept was originally pioneered at Microsoft in a 1999 research paper titled 'Priorities' and later appeared in 2005 as Outlook Mobile Management. Check out the original Channel 9 interview by the Scobleizer (26pt Scrabble word!) with Eric Horvitz.
Rediscovery of features is in no way a certain predictor of success or failure. Google's discovery of 'smart quotes', 'calendar preview', 'footnotes', and the standing ovation at I/O 'grammar check' all demonstrate examples of imitation of Microsoft (et al solutions) rather than their self-proclaimed innovation.
As for PI success, it may find a place but time will tell based on the trustworthiness of Google's machine learning. Such a personal agent can't have false positives, negatives when it relates to communication flow.
As for my feelings about Google building a system that has the ability to preemptively take action for me because their pattern matching of me is that honed? Well, let's just say it reminds me of that other 1999 milestone, The Matrix. Yes, I do think one of their executives has an uncanny resemblance to Agent Smith, but I am not naming names. Do you have a guess?
Have you ever seen someone else's inbox and sat there thinking "I could never work that way"? At Microsoft, we know that users all work differently so it's important to provide them with the ability to work the way they prefer.
Outlook provides by my count 12 different ways to arrange the order of your emails, including conversation view. Offering user customization is as smart as allowing seats in a car to be adjusted. Google's recently complained that such features are unfair in competitive sales when compared to their inbox experience that relies entirely on one pivot for sorting email (conversation view).
Microsoft's Way of Dealing With Information Overload – Arsenal of Tools
Given that more people spend time with Outlook on a daily basis than they do with their spouse, we are greatly incented to help them have a better inbox experience. So with the introduction of Exchange 2010 and Office 2010, we dramatically improved ways for users to regain control of their inbox. Basex, the Analyst Firm dedicated to management science and 'information overload' awarded us an Innovation 'Basey' for helping end users with inbox management.
In addition to new views like conversation, we added features like Clean Up, Mail Tips, Ignore, Quick Steps all of which allow users to regain control of their inboxes. If you want the best overview of these features, go check out the Outlook PM Team post, "What Up with my Inbox"