Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Smarter Email

I love Email.

It just works. It works because it is flexible, open, and anyone can use it. It works very well in heterogeneous environments as the email standard is well documented, accepted and implemented.

I have looked at a ton of 'solutions' that try to replace emails, but nothing really works as seamlessly as good-old email.

The goal of email is to enable communication and think that it can be improved. It will be stupid to completely replace this amazing means of communication, when it fundamentally works well. What needs to be done is to make it 'smarter'.

What's broken is not the ability of emails to enable communication, but that the forms of communication have now become more complicated whereas email is still at its original design built for person-to-person messaging. Because email worked for everything, everything piled onto it making it complicated.

What needs to happen is that a standard should be created on top of email, that can handle 'special' use cases which can then be implemented by clients in a cross-platform way.

A few examples of this are:
  • Messages from discussion groups can be similar to RSS feeds. They are usually read-only and rarely need to be responded to.
  • Special handlers to 'automatic' messages, like calendar invites, flight alerts, shipping confirmation, etc. They don't need to be shown like a 'message', just need to get to my mailbox so that I can access them if I need to.
  • Notification emails should show up as, well, notifications.
  • A good way to handle things like groupons, which, even though come in as email, aren't really messages. 
There is no one company that can 'fix' this, as any change to email needs to be standardized. However, small steps can definitely be taken to create email formats that are 'machine readable' by the client so they can be organized properly.

A first step in this direction is to have a major email provider (eg. gmail) to start supporting 'smart email' formats. This will make the services to send emails compatible with this format, which can then grow and expand to more and more services.

I would love to see some work done here, and see someone solve this problem.  May be its time for someone to start a new email company :)



5 comments:

  1. This is 100% spot on. I've thought about this a great deal in the past, and discussed it with some folks.

    Thing is, you don't even need a new standard, since the mechanism is already there. All we would need is for folks to agree (that may be harder) on the use of standardized x-headers. Then clients can implement "smart" filtering, etc based on the presence and value of them.

    For example (none of these should be considered well-thought-out ;-)
    x-from-company = Netflix
    Can be used to filter on company

    x-is-billing = True
    Can be used to route to a folder of bills

    x-period = Monthly
    Can be used to determine subscription or periodic freq

    If you put all those together, you can create a folder for my Netflix account statements and highlight it when a bill is near or past due. You could allow a search fo all bills this month. You could do quite a lot.

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    1. Yes, that is exactly what I am talking about! All the pieces to do this are already in place, people just need to agree on it.

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    2. Jalpesh8:03 AM

      On similar lines, may be write extensions for desktop clients like outlook. show interests in people using it and hopefully one of the companies will add this in their apps. I see more and more web mails are mimicking desktop app functionality (apart from their own unique features) to move desktop features on thinner client. I think it's difficult for gmail or Microsoft or yahoo to make these standards esp because they have to interoperate

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  2. Aniket10:55 AM

    Didnt Wave try to re-invent email - and faced a lot of inertia from users? Didnt reach critical mass. Although I understand what you are proposing is quite different from Wave's propositions - but the case in point is that people (users at large) shed inertia really slowly - or just dont.

    GMail labs also from time to time have some interesting little featurettes. For example - they mark email that is addressed directly to you as important; etc...
    I believe that such flexibility is best left to individual users to tune their mailboxes to their preferences (rather than standardize). Folders and (perhaps smarter) filters serve the purpose in most cases.

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    Replies
    1. Wave tried to replace email with something very clunky. It didn't really reduce the 'noise' of email, or add a good structure to it. Rather, it was really noisy. It also tried to do too much.. like editing documents, which is not meant for doing inside of email.

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