Enhancement of e-mail client user interfaces and e-mail message formats
An enhancement to e-mail user interfaces and message formats includes a dynamic preview window to view and retrieve attachments and summaries of e-mail messages directly in the e-mail list view or inbox view without opening an e-mail message. The efficient viewing mechanism further allows previews without cluttering the listing of the e-mails in the inbox by allowing the client to detect special preview instructions within an e-mail and run executables within the preview window. The enhancement is applicable to standalone e-mail clients (POP or IMAP based) and to web-based e-mail systems.
CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
This application claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application No. 60/688,174, filed Jun. 7, 2005.
The present invention relates generally to the enhancement of e-mail user interfaces and message formats, and more specifically to providing a dynamic preview window for viewing summaries of e-mail messages and attachments without having to open the e-mail message
E-mail is a very heavily used computer application program, and the number and size of e-mails are increasing every day. Recipients frequently must spend hours reading and responding to emails. Much of the increase in size is due to e-mail attachments. Because it is relatively easy to do, senders may add pictures, documents, and even video attachments to e-mails. E-mail recipients are frequently forced to guess the content of an e-mail from the subject line, and they are only notified of the present an attachment by a “paper clip” icon or the like. The user must usually open the e-mail to see its full content and to reply to the e-mail, as well as to determine the types and file names of any attachments. It is also necessary to open the e-mail in order to access the attachments, even though there may be no interest in the e-mail content itself. This requires invoking another application for each different type of attachment, and is very time consuming.
Standalone e-mail clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, have a static preview window or “reading pane” 112, as shown in
Common web-based e-mail systems normally only contain a static page listing of e-mails, and users have to click on the e-mail links to open the e-mail to retrieve the contents and any attachments. Certain enhanced web-based e-mail systems, such as OddPost and Microsoft's Web-based Outlook, may have static preview windows similar to that offered by the standalone clients. However, they also suffer from the drawback that these preview windows take up a large amount of space on the screen, and still require the e-mail and an appropriate application to be opened to access an attachment.
It is desirable to provide systems and methods that address the foregoing and other problems associated with e-mails by affording efficient mechanisms for quickly and efficiently previewing and responding to e-mails and attachments without cluttering the listing of the e-mails in a recipients' e-mail inbox and without requiring that e-mails be opened to interact with them. It is to these ends that the present invention is directed.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
The invention affords a method and system for enhancing a user interface of e-mail clients to allow efficient preview of an e-mail in a list of e-mails. The invention enables users to preview the content associated with an e-mail on an inbox view listing of e-mails without opening the e-mail. The preview may be in a temporary preview window that appears only during activation by the user for a particular e-mail, and, therefore, does not require a constant dedicated display space on the e-mail listing. When deactivated, the preview window may disappear.
In other aspects, the invention may also allow an e-mail client to detect special preview instructions within an e-mail to access e-mail attachments within the preview window, and to run executables to render attachments such as pictures, video, or audio. The invention may also enable the e-mail client to handle special instructions embedded in the e-mail header or e-mail body which prompt the client to display customized applications within the preview windows that permit the user to interact with the applications to accomplish a task, such as controlling a video, filing out a form or completing an online transaction such as making a purchase.
In a further aspect, the preview window may overlay the e-mail inbox listing adjacent (preferably below) the entry for the e-mail being previewed, so that the user does not need to focus his attention to another part of the screen when viewing the preview window. The preview window may be activated by a trigger mechanism, such as a mouse-over or a click-action on an icon next to an e-mail entry in the listing, or by a mouse-over or click-action on the e-mail entry itself (for example the subject line). The preview window disappears upon the trigger mechanism being deactivated, as by the user moving the mouse cursor away from a triggering icon or the e-mail entry, or by a subsequent click on a triggering icon or e-mail entry, or upon some other action.
In a preferred embodiment, when a user initially positions a mouse cursor relative to the preview trigger a delay may be introduced before opening the preview window to prevent accidental triggering. A delay may also be introduced after the user moves his mouse away from the triggering icon or preview window before closing the preview window to allow the user some freedom in the movement of the mouse. Additionally, the invention may run applications and scripts that interact with remote services on a network and servers through the preview window.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
DESCRIPTION OF PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS
This invention is particularly well adapted to enhancing e-mail user interfaces on standalone e-mail clients and on web-based e-mail clients, and will be described in that context. It will be appreciated, however, that this is illustrative of only one utility of the invention.
As is well known, there are multiple components of an e-mail system, notably the e-mail client, the e-mail server and transport systems that ensure an e-mail gets from one point to another. The e-mail client is normally referred to as the mail user agent (MUA) and the transport systems that store and forward e-mails are normally referred to as mail transfer agents (MTA). The invention is primarily concerned with the enhancement of e-mail clients or MUAs, and, therefore, this document will not describe the details of other less relevant parts of an e-mail system.
Currently mail user agents (mail clients) fall within two categories, i.e., standalone e-mail clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, and web-based e-mail applications such as Hotmail and Yahoo mail. Standalone e-mail clients are installed on a user's computer and normally use the POP or IMAP protocol (some may use proprietary mechanisms such as Outlook's Hotmail connectivity) to receive e-mails from an e-mail server (mail store). Web-based e-mail applications are accessed through a web browser and the e-mail application (MUA) actually resides on the server where the e-mail is stored.
For the standalone e-mail-client 121, a user interface allows a user to manage, read and compose e-mails, and mail processing code performs the necessary e-mail processing functions. A typical standalone e-mail client 121 may have a local e-mail data store 122 that stores the e-mail that has been retrieved from a remote e-mail data store 126 on a server computer 124 on the network 129. The standalone e-mail client retrieves the e-mail from the remote data store through a remote server 125 using a protocol such as POP, IMAP or a proprietary protocol such as used by Microsoft Exchange. Examples of standalone e-mail clients are Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and the open source Thunderbird e-mail client.
In the case of a web-based e-mail application, the user accesses the e-mail application through a web-browser 130 on the computer 120 that is connected to the network 129 via a network protocol layer 123, such as HTTP or HTTPS. The browser connects to a remote server computer 124 that runs a web server 128 with a web-based e-mail application 127. Examples of web-based e-mail applications include the open source Horde e-mail application or Squirrel Mail. The web-based e-mail application 127 generates the necessary user interface that is displayed on the web browser 130. The web-based e-mail application 127 also connects to the e-mail data store 126 on the server computer 124 to parse and display the user's e-mail.
In a preferred embodiment, upon the preview trigger being activated for a particular e-mail, the preview window opens temporarily on the inbox view adjacent the e-mail being previewed and overlays some of the e-mails in the list. In another possible embodiment, instead of a layer that overlays the listing of e-mails in an inbox view, the preview window may open adjacent an e-mail being previewed, e.g., below the e-mail, and push down the other e-mail entries in the inbox view so as not to obscure the emails in the list. This method has the advantage that the preview window does not obstruct any of the e-mails in the list, but may be less visually appealing. On a web-based email system, the preview can be achieved by displaying each email entry in an HTML table row, and when a preview mechanism is activated, inserting a row under the active email entry and displaying the preview content in a <DIV> within that new row. This will push down e-mail entries below the active email while the preview window takes up the space beneath the active email entry. On a desktop client, this can be achieved using a mechanism similar approach but with different components, such as by using a DataGrid in Visual Basic.
The preview window may display a text summary of an e-mail message's main body. In the example shown, the e-mail does not contain any attachments. However, the preview window may contain links 172, 173 to reply to the sender or to contact the sender through instant messaging. As will be described, the invention enables replies and instant messaging to be performed within the preview window without the necessity of opening the e-mail message. This conveniently improves the workflow speed and efficiency of handling e-mails.
Processes for creating, initializing and populating the preview window will be described later. First, however, a description of the functionality within the preview window will be provided.
The following are examples of code that may be compiled into the Outlook Proxy ActiveX Control written in Visual Basic. The code example below retrieves the subject text of an e-mail. As will be appreciated, a similar approach may be used to retrieve other e-mail content.
Code inside the preview window HTML body that initializes the ActiveX Object and calls the functions in the ActiveX Object that may be used for realizing a part of an e-mail may be:
As will be explained, certain routines may not require a connection to the main e-mail application, but rather to other third party applications.
When using the “Contact via Instant messenger” link, a similar mechanism may be used by the preview mechanism to send the message, but in a preferred embodiment, a plug-in of the instant messenger component may be embedded within the preview window using mechanisms such as ActiveX or other similar mechanisms familiar to those skilled in the art. In this event, there is no need to contact the e-mail application after an instant messenger message is sent. The plug-in merely communicates directly to the appropriate Instant Messaging server on the network. In a preferred embodiment of the invention, the “instant messenger” option may only be available if the e-mail address of the sender of the e-mail is already in the recipient's address book, as identified, for example, by an instant messenger nickname.
The invention may also be used for previewing multi-media content, such as video or images and/or audio in the preview window. Multi-media content such as images and audio may be included within the email or within an attachment, or downloaded from a remote server, and rendered.
In an alternate embodiment, the invention may allow preview of images stored on a remote server and not embedded in the e-mail itself as attachments. In this case, the e-mail may contain an identifier that specifies that the images are stored on a remote server (such as a photo sharing website), from which the application may retrieve the list of images to be displayed in the preview window slideshow.
In the example shown in
As shown, the e-mail may contain instructions within its header that directs the e-mail client to load an application within the preview window to allow the user to act upon the requisition without leaving the preview window or even having to open the e-mail. The e-mail header may contain the requisition number, as well as an identifier that the instruction is of a particular type, e.g., application=procurement_e-mail_plug-in:
- X-PreviewInstruction: application=procurement_e-mail_plug-in;requisition_guid=A309EF012BC290912390;server=myserver.com
The e-mail client (in the standalone client) or the e-mail server (in the web-based e-mail) will detect the application type “procurement_e-mail_plug-in” and determine if it is capable of handling the instructions of the indicated application “procurement_e-mail_plug-in”.
In a preferred embodiment of the invention, the e-mail applications contain the necessary functionality to handle the application type “procurement_e-mail_plug-in”, and load a Java applet within the preview window that takes the parameters of the X-PreviewInstruction. The Java applet may then connect with a server, e.g., myserver.com, and retrieve the requisition matching a requisition_guid of A309EFO12BC290912390. Upon receiving the requisition information from the server, the Java applet may then display within the preview window 212 the information in the requisition that the user needs in order to approve the requisition. The information preferably includes a link 224 to view the entire requisition and actions to take such as “approve” or “reject”. In a preferred embodiment of the invention, the e-mail application may be extended by installing new plug-ins. The e-mail application is able to handle and load various proprietary components within the preview window as specified by the preview instructions in the header.
The invention improves the efficiency of business workflow because it is not only unnecessary to open the e-mail to see information regarding the requisition, a user does not have to manually launch an application or visit another URL but can interact through the preview window with the business application, which may, for example be a Java application.
In another embodiment, the invention may have a more generic preview instruction and the e-mail application may only know of a URL to load the preview content. This is similar to loading a web page in a browser:
- X-PreviewInstruction: application=browser;url=http://myserver.com?type=in_preview&requisition_guide=A3
In this case, any content that is browser-readable may be loaded within the preview. It would be advantageous to specify certain settings in the URL parameters, such as the preview window height and width to ensure that the loaded content will fit within the preview window. Using this approach, it is not necessary to install any plug-ins within the client. In the case of a standalone e-mail application, the advantage of having an e-mail plug-in as opposed to a generic browser plug-in is that the e-mail plug-in, such as the before-mentioned Java-based procurement_e-mail_plug-in, is that the plug-in is installed locally and will be able to operate without connectivity to a network. In the absence of any network connection, the plug-in may store any instructions that it receives from the user, and send them to the server when a network connection is later detected.
Another advantage is that the e-mail application is able to auto-install new plug-ins should it determine that the application itself is not equipped to handle the content, and a plug-in installation URL may be provided within the preview instruction, e.g.,
- X-PreviewInstruction: application=procurement_e-mail_plug-in;plug-in_install_url=http://myserver.com?action=get_plug-in;requisition_guid=A309EF012BC290912390;server=myserver.com
In this instruction the plug-in_install_url parameter directs the e-mail client to retrieve a plug-in installer from a server on the network. This plug-in installer may conform to plug-in architectures such as ActiveX plug-ins for browsers or other plug-in architectures familiar to those skilled in the art. Once installed, the e-mail application will not need to retrieve the plug-in installer from the server on the network the next time the e-mail application encounters e-mails with headers corresponding to the plug-in. Preferably, the e-mail application notifies the user to obtain consent before installing the plug-in.
In regards to the “X-PreviewInstruction” instructions, in an alternate embodiment of the invention, the instructions may be embedded in an attachment in the body of the e-mail. The advantage of embedding the instructions in an attachment is that this allows the instructions to contain more content, potentially eliminating the need to acquire more information from a remote server. The e-mail application can then determine the content type of the application through either the file extension of the attachment or the mime type.
In a preferred embodiment of the invention, the icon 221, or trigger, (see
Another utility of the invention is in connection with calendaring. Currently Microsoft Outlook allows users to send a meeting request that is basically an attachment containing VCalendar (text/calendar MIME type) instructions should the recipient have a client application that has the capability to interpret VCalendar instructions. These notify the recipient that the sender has requested a meeting, and allow the recipient to automatically schedule the meeting in his calendar. Unlike current approaches, the e-mail application of the invention may allow the recipient to accept, deny or reschedule the meeting using the preview technology described above, without opening the e-mail itself from the preview window.
Alternatively, the preview window content may be retrieved, processed and/or cached during the initial generation of the e-mail listing in the inbox. Then, the preview window may simply display the content when the preview trigger is activated.
If the preview content is not cached, then the process may retrieve the e-mail from the data store at 282. The process may then inspect the message at 283 to determine if the e-mail-contains attachments or preview instructions. If not, a “summarizer” routine may be invoked at 287. The summarizer routine preferably summarizes and sizes the e-mail body content to fit the preview window. In a preferred embodiment of the invention, the summarizer routine may truncate the text in the e-mail body to a predetermined number of characters, e.g., 200 characters, that can fit within the preview window. In the case of e-mails that only contain HTML text, the summarizer routine may filter and strip out the HTML tags and truncate and display the remaining plain text words to a number of characters that will fit within the preview window space. Certain languages, for example, support conversion of HTML documents to plain text using a function such as “strip_tags( )” of PHP. The preview window may be then displayed to the user at 288.
If the e-mail message contains attachments or preview instructions (283), the e-mail application may check at 284 to see if it has the capability to handle or render the attachments or instructions. If this capability does not exist, as in the case, for example, where the preview instructions are not understood or the attachment is not a recognized type, then the application may add a link at 286 within the preview window that when activated will retrieve the e-mail attachment (if any) from the e-mail. The summarizer routine may be invoked at 287 to summarize any text or HTML content in the body of the e-mail before displaying the preview window at 288. If the e-mail application is capable of handling or rendering the attachment(s) or preview instructions (284) within the e-mail, an appropriate routine may be invoked at 285. In the case of e-mail attachments, an example of a specialized rendering routine may be to display previews of image attachments within the preview window, as shown in
The summarizer routine 287 preferably also adds the routines necessary to enter a reply to the sender of the e-mail, as shown in
The process may check to see if the current preview window is cacheable at 301. For example, previews that contain summaries of text or html e-mails such as shown in
If the preview is not cacheable, then the preview window's content and window state may be reset and removed at 302. The e-mail application may make the decision on whether a preview should be cached or not. For example, a preview that contains a plug-in or an executable such as a Java applet may be deemed to take up too much processing resource and should not be cached. Therefore, the window may be deleted and the resource released.
While the foregoing has been with reference to specific embodiments of the invention, it will be appreciated that changes may be made to these embodiments without departing from the spirit and principles of the invention, the scope of which is defined in the appended claims.
1. A method of enhancing an e-mail user interface, comprising:
- associating with e-mails in an inbox view listing of e-mails a preview trigger; and
- upon activation by a user of the preview trigger associated with one of said e-mails, opening a temporary preview window on said inbox view while said preview trigger is activated, and
- displaying a preview of content in the associated e-mail within said preview window.
2. The method of claim 1, wherein said activating comprises moving a cursor over an entry for said associated e-mail in said listing.
3. The method of claim 1, wherein said activating comprises clicking on an entry for said associated e-mail in said listing.
4. The method of claim 1, wherein said preview window includes a browser, and the method further comprises fetching data from an e-mail application for display within said preview window with calls to the e-mail application using the browser.
5. The method of claim 4 further comprising updating the content preview in the preview window by refreshing the preview window from the e-mail application.
6. The method of claim 1 further comprising providing a text box within the preview window, and replying to a previewed e-mail with text entered into the text box by the user.
7. The method of claim 6, wherein said replying comprises executing a script that communicates with the e-mail application to forward said text entered into the text box.
8. The method of claim 6, wherein said replying comprises communicating with an instant messenger server using an instant messenger plug-in to forward said text.
9. The method of claim 1, wherein the content comprises a link for an attachment to the e-mail, and said method further comprises extracting said attachment using said link without opening the e-mail.
10. The method of claim 9, wherein said extracting said attachment comprises presenting the attachment to the user.
11. The method of claim 9, wherein said method automatically renders said attachment upon opening of the preview window.
12. The method of claim 9 further comprising rendering said attachment within the preview window.
13. The method of claim 9, wherein said link communicates with an e-mail application to extract said attachment from the e-mail and to launch an appropriate reader to render the attachment.
14. The method of claim 9, wherein said link is a URL to an e-mail server that upon being accessed downloads and renders said attachment in a web browser of the user from a web-based e-mail client application.
15. The method of claim 9, wherein said attachment comprises images, and said rendering comprises rendering a sequence of said images with user controls to enable controlling said sequence.
16. The method of claim 15, wherein said rendering comprises automatically rendering said images and user controls upon opening of the preview window.
17. The method of claim 1, wherein said e-mail comprises multi-media content, and the method further comprises associating with the preview window control mechanisms for enabling the user to control rendering of said multi-media content.
18. The method of claim 17 further comprising downloading said multi-media content to the preview window from a remote server.
19. The method of claim 1, wherein said opening a preview window comprises creating the preview window using a function call to an e-mail application.
20. The method of claim 19 further comprising embedding preview instructions within a header of an e-mail to load an application in the preview window that allows a user to respond to the e-mail from the preview window.
21. The method of claim 20 further comprising automatically retrieving from a network server and installing using said application a plug-in for rendering an attachment to the previewed e-mail.
22. The method of claim 1, wherein said preview trigger comprises an icon adjacent to said e-mail, and said method comprises activating said preview trigger upon positioning a cursor relative to said icon.
23. The method of claim 22 further comprising changing the state of said icon in response to information referenced by the e-mail changing.
24. An enhanced e-mail user interface for an e-mail client application comprising:
- a preview mechanism comprising a preview trigger for each of one or more of a plurality of e-mails in an inbox view listing of said e-mails;
- an indicator of the preview trigger associated with an entry on the e-mail view listing for each of said one or more e-mails; and
- a temporary preview window created during activation of the preview mechanism for rendering a preview of the content of a selected one of said e-mails within the preview window.
25. The interface of claim 24, wherein said preview window contains links for expanding the preview window to include a text box for replying to the e-mail from within the preview window.
26. The interface of claim 25 further comprising a script routine that communicates with an e-mail application to reply to the e-mail with text entered into the text box.
27. The interface of claim 26 further comprising a plug-in that communicates with an instant messenger to enable reply to the e-mail with text entered into the text box.
28. The interface of claim 24 further comprising an indicator within the preview window for indicating an attachment of a previewed e-mail, and a link that communicates with the e-mail application to launch a reader to render the attachment in the preview window.
29. The interface of claim 25, wherein the e-mail application is web-based, and the link comprises a URL to an e-mail server for downloading the attachment using a web browser.
30. The interface of claim 24, wherein the preview window indicates the presence of an image in a previewed e-mail, and includes a link that communicates with the e-mail application to load the image into the preview window.
31. The interface of claim 24, wherein said e-mail comprises an e-mail header, and said preview trigger comprises preview instructions in said header that direct the e-mail application to load another application into the preview window to enable interaction with the preview of said e-mail.
32. The interface of claim 31, wherein said other application includes one of a plug-in or a Java applet for loading said other application with the previewed e-mail.
33. The interface of claim 32, wherein said preview window comprises an executable for obtaining application information related to preview instructions embedded within the e-mail being previewed.
34. The interface of claim 24, wherein said indicator of the preview trigger comprises an icon associated with an e-mail of said e-mail list view, and preview instructions in a header of such e-mail responsive to triggering of said icon.
35. The interface of claim 24 wherein said preview window comprises another indicator within said preview window associated with a previewed e-mail for enabling a recipient to respond to the previewed e-mail.
36. A method of enhancing an e-mail for preview by a recipient without opening the e-mail, comprising embedding within the e-mail preview instructions for previewing content of the e-mail and a preview trigger mechanism for generating a preview of the e-mail, said preview trigger mechanism opening a preview window, and said preview instructions specifying a type of application needed for interpreting the instructions and for launching the application within the preview window to render said preview of the e-mail.
International Classification: G06F 15/16 (20060101);