Zenbe: Next-Generation Webmail, With A Platform Twist

The most publicized improvements to email in recent memory haven’t been browser-based, they’ve been extensions like Xobni and Xoopit that latch onto your existing mail client and provide auxiliary services.

This tactic makes good business sense – who wants to try convincing Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Gmail users to take a leap of faith and walk away from these BigCo solutions for an unproven startup? As things stand, that migration is necessary without a way to integrate 3rd-party technologies into those popular webmail services.

Zenbe is one company willing to go out on a limb, build a completely stand-alone webmail solution, and push the envelope on what’s possible with email. The service, which is currently in private beta but available to the first 500 readers who sign up here, makes advances in a number of areas. It also provides a glimpse at what “email as a platform” really means.

The app’s most superficial improvement is a beautiful user interface. Spend a few minutes clicking around Zenbe and you’ll find that it really does deserve the “zen” moniker.

But good looks are far from its only selling point. You also get fully integrated calendar, task list, and address book capabilities, easily accessible through an ever-present sidebar. There’s a Xoopit-like tab with which you can browse all the files contained across your emails. These files are viewable by type: images, documents, spreadsheets, audio/video files, and events. As with emails, you can star files to indicate their importance; you can also hover over them to see previews. And there’s a Facebook tab in the sidebar that lets you see your friends’ most recent updates.

Zenbe’s big idea, however, consists of a feature called “ZenPages” that are intended to help you organize your email into projects or topics. Instead of just putting messages into folders (which Zenbe doesn’t have anyway; it’s a tag-based system like Gmail), you can assign messages to ZenPages with specially designated tags. For example, I can assign all messages tagged with “techcrunch50” to a TechCrunch50 conference ZenPage.

Once there, I can do a lot of useful things with them. First off, I can invite others (whether Zenbe users or not) to my ZenPage and they can view all my relevant emails. If they so choose, they can also share relevant messages using the same ZenPage. This lets groups collaborate around email without having to CC each other on every single one. Calendar events can also be shared this way.

In addition to sharing emails and calendars, you can install a range of other default widgets: a group task list, an agenda, a discussion thread, and a list of relevant links. But here’s where your imagination should take off: Zenbe also plans to allow 3rd-party apps onto these pages, ones that have direct access to users’ emails.

Zenbe is already showcasing a set of 3rd-party integrations, including widgets for YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, Google Chat, and Google Maps. But none of these actually leverage any email data. For one that did, imagine a TripIt that sat within a ZenPage and automatically parsed all of your flight itinerary emails. This would cut out the step of manually forwarding your emails to the service.

Email data is highly valuable and pertinent information for users, so it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to think of other possible email-parsing apps. Maybe someone could even use the platform (once rolled out in full) to solve the email overload problem, or finally build a real social network around email.

Zenbe comes with 4GB of storage for each user. It currently doesn’t display any advertisements, and it only has plans to display them on ZenPages (it sees an opportunity to provide sponsored template ZenPages for certain project types).