Xobni is indeed at neat bit of programming, and Microsoft likes it so much it tried to buy the company. But Xobni walked away from the deal, CEO Jeff Bonforte told me. (Microsoft can’t seem to buy anything these days.) At first I thought that was a bad decision, since Xobni is hardly a must-have product. It improves Outlook a bit, sure. But the company is going to need more than this handy little plug-in to become a real business. Microsoft was an easy exit. Why didn’t Xobni go for it?
Here’s what Xobni has up its sleeve: Xobni the app runs on Xobni the platform. This platform has hooks deep into Outlook. The platform is what enables Xobni to graft a viewing pane into Outlook, something other plug-ins can’t do. It can also integrate into Outlook’s default search bar (it doesn’t, yet). The platform is what gives Xobni access to all the message data that it uses without bogging down the Outlook host app.
Xobni plans to do two interesting things with the platform: first, write hooks into other e-mail apps (like Yahoo Mail and Gmail), and second, make the platform available to other vendors. So, for example, if Salesforce.com wants to write a plug-in that tightly integrates its CRM data into Outlook or whatever e-mail app its customers are using, Xobni’s toolkit could make that work. Salesforce presumably would make money from such a feature, which Xobni would profit from as well.
It turns out that Xobni is not really an Outlook plug-in company. Rather, it’s a company that makes a platform to abstract the difficult-to-write-for-Outlook, as well as other less-broken e-mail services, and that allows the creation of new products that integrate e-mail data with other apps. That’s good, since the business of painting incremental features onto Outlook is a bit shallow. The fundamental platform business is less visible to consumers, but it might actually make some money.