Annotation tool takes e-mail beyond emoticons

A frequent complaint about e-mail is that it’s a lousy way to communicate.

Words are misinterpreted, meaning gets lost, readers jump to false conclusions. Emoticons — those little sideways smiling, frowning or winking faces — were used as a stopgap measure to point the reader in the right

direction (the winking face is really supposed to say: Yes, I am joking here, so don’t e-mail me back complaining that I’m an insensitive clod). Those fell out of favour a few years back, when the novelty of e-mail finally began to wear off, so there’s still plenty of room for misunderstanding in electronic epistles.

A French firm is trying to take some of the guesswork out of what’s really important when it comes to e-mail, at least in a business context. Annotis Mail, a product from Paris-based Emeris Technologies, lets users highlight portions of e-mail text, attach annotative notes to the body and “”stamp”” e-mails with messages like “”Confidential”” or “”For Comment.””

Jacques Pariseau, director of translation services for Le Groupe-conseil baastel Ltee. in Montreal, sends out 50 to 100 e-mails a day to communicate with his freelance translators who work from home. Baastel translates documents, mostly for the public sector, in English, French or Spanish. Some of those documents can be thousands of words in length, so Pariseau uses Annotis to point out which are the most important sections.

“”I’ll use the (note) function . . . but the one I use the most is the highlighter, like you can do in a regular Word document,”” says Pariseau. “”If I want them to pay particular attention to something, I’ll just highlight it.””

A corporate trainer uses Annotis to get his point across to clients. “”A lot of the coaching is done via e-mail,”” says Al Gates, based in Sydney, B.C. “”I need all the help I can get there to get people to pay attention to some of the points that I’m making.””

Emeris CEO Alain Renaud says Annotis, which sells for US$24.95, has been downloaded 70,000 times from the company’s Web site. The origin of Annotis, however, is not e-mail based. It was developed at the Université de Technologie de Compiègne, just outside of Paris, for annotating civil aviation documents. From that prototype Emeris the company was formed and a new gameplan for the product was drawn up. “”The (original) product . . . looked more like a CAD product than a desktop application,”” says Renaud. “”Really the prototype demonstrated the ability to create annotations by having a layer on top of the document. When we started Emeris, we started from scratch, but sometimes it’s good to have a product in front of you so you can see what you don’t want.””

E-mail, the most pervasive desktop application in the world, was the most obvious target for the program, says Renaud. Emeris recently opened a Montreal office to use Canada as a test market before attempting to distribute the product in the U.S., and a new Annotis for Microsoft’s latest version of Outlook will be released in June. At the moment Annotis is Microsoft-only compatible, but Renaud says that was the logical place to start.

The future of Annotis may not be limited to e-mail, however. Emeris is working on a version that can be used with Microsoft Word and there are plans to expand beyond SOHO (small office/home office) users with a version for Lotus Notes.

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