James Governor's Monkchips

Is Zimbra really an ambient microsearch engine?

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I read somewhere this morning that Alan Turing said, and I paraphrase very roughly here, most computing tasks are actually about search. That seed sparked something in my mind while reading Scott Dietzen on Zimbra today.

Zimbra, for those of you that aren’t in the hyperati, is a rather cool startup offering an AJAX-based email and collaboration client and server, to compete with the likes of Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino. Why does the world need another email platform, you ask? Because email sucks, says Dietzen. He has a point.

One of the things not well understood is that AJAX is in many respects not a programming model at all, but rather a user interaction model.

Dietzen’s post, AJAX sweet spots, makes it clear how things change with AJAX, and its all about information in context, whether hovering or clicking, the mouse defines the mashup. Here is a list of possibilities:

• Mouse-over a date or time, and see what’s in your calendar;
• Mouse-over a phone number, and see what’s in your address book;
• Mouse-over a physical address, and see a map or even driving directions and estimated arrival time;
• Mouse-over a flight, and see whether or not it’s on time;
• Mouse-over a customer email address or case tracking number, and see its status;
• Mouse-over an equity to get a quote;
• Mouse-over a part number to check inventory;
• Mouse-over an Internet order, and see its shipping status; and so on.

With Ajax-based messaging, email content can also be fully actionable:
• Right click on a phone number to make a call with your soft-phone (such as via Skype or a Cisco VoIP phone);
• Right click on a date to schedule a meeting;
• Right click on a name, address, or phone number to update your address book;
• Right click on an airline reservation to print your boarding pass;
• Right click on an equity to trade;
• Right click on a part number to place an order for more inventory;
• Right click on a purchase order, provisioning request, or other internal workflow request to approve or reject it; and so on again.

Searching for stuff today is probably the key challenge in user productivity. What was his phone number? What was the document called? Where did I store that vendor number?

Every time we look for a new piece of information for our ongoing work mosaic we shift context. Google. Outlook contacts. Google. Outlook Calendar. Bloglines. X1 Search. and so on.

All the context shifting causes us to lose productivity, especially if the search engines in the different components introduce significant latency, such as the worst search engine in the world ever, the one embedded with Microsoft Outlook.

In the AJAX user interaction model, contexts can be collapsed. The user defines the chosen context. In this view of the world integrated innovation is best served by the use of loosely coupled componentry, as Zimbra has already shown with its eBay and Google maps mashups, rather than through tightly coupled client monoliths.

With Zimbra, search should effectively be instant and in context. The information we need comes to us, with a mouse hover. We don’t need to actively search for a new information component. This is micro rather than general purpose search, but task specific. Its ambient because its in the environment.

AJAX is like wearing a wrist watch rather than calling directory enquiries every time you need to know the time. There is huge value in that. Desktop search- who needs it? 😉



  1. Also, Satish Dharmaraj is a great guy. I expect this company to kick some serious butt!

  2. I agree with the ambient search analysis – nice term by the way!

    But on the other hand, why does Zimbra try so hard to look like Outlook, or at least, to look like a desktop app? The web frees you from ugly desktop interfaces – 37signals are the prime examples of how to do this.

  3. While, email is good for some things, we’re using it for too many things.

    In my two years of research with 112 women, I’ve found that you can’t manage a close relationship with email. If you try, the relationship gets weaker.

    But people are trying to spice up email with emoticons and forwarded stories, etc. It’s a strange bind we’re in now. So I’ve tried to develop something better.

    Yes, I do need better email. I can’t live without it, because it’s how I do most of my work. But I’m glad to be finally unchained from email for my closest relationships.

  4. James, thanks for pointing me over here. I subscribe to your blog but got behind in reading articles. I need to make it a point to read your stuff as it comes out.

    I am familiar with the Zimbra email. Very nice stuff. I was especially intrigued with the incontext hover details. I also really like your name.

    At Yahoo! we have an amazing amount of content that can be relevant to what a user is doing at any given time. Making the information available from our other services, integrated in a transparent manner (through these kinds of techniques) is very important to us.

    Sharing pieces of relevant content via contextual information is a powerful concept. Like you said it collapses the context. How to share this content is an interesting problem. Some folks are pushing microformats, but I don’t tend to like HTML markup used as data. But if I can hit services, lookup related content, and post in context… man that simplifies the user’s life.

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