Email may or may not have a long and prosperous future lying in wait, but for now it’s showing no real signs of weakening its grip on the enterprise.

With that in mind, Front has been building a new desktop application geared towards making it easier to collaborate around emails with shared inboxes.

Now, the concept of a shared inbox is, of course, nothing new. But Front is bringing a heap of productivity features into the mix too, that kind of make this more of an email-client/social network crossbreed.

Front remains in invite-only, private beta mode for now, but we grabbed a quick peek ahead of the launch next month to see what you can expect.

Back to Front

Front is a downloadable desktop app for Mac, Windows and Linux. There is no Web-based incarnation as of now, nor a mobile app – though the latter of these is in the works. Also, during our tests it only worked with Google email accounts, but we’re told it has been built to cater for other email providers – this will be rolled out after the public launch in mid-May.

Now, the idea here is that you grab all your shared inboxes from your company – so ‘info@’, ‘sales@’, ‘hello@’ and all the rest – and bundle them into Front. To set things up, you will of course require the password for the email address, but then after that anyone else from your sales or marketing teams, for example, who’s invited won’t be required to enter this information. All they’ll need to do is install Front, and create an account for themselves.

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There’s not a lot of point in Front unless you add other team members of course, which is easy to do – you just have to enter their work email address under ‘Add a New Teammate’, and the rest is self-explanatory.

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In the beginning, all the emails sitting in the source inbox will be listed under the ‘Unassigned’ category within Front, but then you can click the ‘Assign’ button to score that off the list and it will become the responsibility of a specific team member. You can also choose to stay informed about a specific conversation thread, by hitting the ‘Follow’ button.

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Then there’s tags that can be allocated to specific emails – so ‘Leads’, ‘Priority’, and anything else relevant to your company.

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However, Front isn’t just about managing and assigning emails – it’s a fully-fledged client too, letting users send emails directly from within the application.

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While Front is very much an email client, it also reels in social features, including commenting. So replies to emails are displayed chronologically (original at the top), but you can also post comments à la Facebook, and include specific @mentions directed at specific people. However, there’s no functionality for ‘Liking’ or otherwise showing support for a response, beyond posting a follow-up comment yourself.

j1 730x310 Front helps companies collaborate with shared email inboxesAnd what impact does all your actions within Front have on the original emails within Gmail? Well it pretty much corresponds directly, so when you ‘Archive’ in Front, it also archives in Gmail, and the same goes for ‘Delete’ and ‘Answer’. Shortly, ‘Assign’ in Front will correlate with ‘Read’ in the Gmail app.

All in all, Front has been well thought-out and well-designed, but will people be prepared to use multiple clients? For example, Front is just about collaboration around shared inboxes, so what about your own personal inbox and folders? It could get rather fiddly switching between Outlook/Thunderbird and Front. However, plans are afoot to make Front a broader communications conduit, dealing with company tweets, LinkedIn/Facebook messages and more. Perhaps a little something like HootSuite, but with email thrown in for good measure.

Though there are similar tools out there such as Grexit, which works in conjunction with your existing email clients (Outlook, Thunderbird etc), Front’s focus on real-time activity feeds and notifications helps differentiate it somewhat. And when it begins opening up to other email services and social networks, it will basically become a different kind of service altogether.

“[The idea is] that Front is the front office of your company, the first point of contact, the place where all the incoming streams – not directly addressed to someone – arrive,” explains Mathilde Collin, co-founder and CEO.

Front will adopt a freemium pricing model that will cost nothing if you receive less than 250 messages a month, thereafter it will cost $9 for each user per-month.

With a mid-May launch currently penciled in, these additional social network integrations will follow after, alongside analytics and mobile apps.

For now, feel free to request an invite, and join the thousand-plus users that have been brought on during the stealth phase.

Front