Edo the Reliable ("Amin")

Email 2.0: The Elephant in The Room

In Email, Social Networks on December 6, 2009 at 12:07 am

The Wise Developers and the ElephantFrom an engineering perspective, Gmail is a success story. But from a product perspective, its adoption was less successful than other Google products. Gmail is the fourth most popular email service – a far cry from Google’s domination of the search market. The challenge may be amplified as Chrome OS gains market share. As Chrome encourages users to move to web-based email, the majority of these converts may enroll in non-Google services.

Originated almost half a century ago, email is an inadequate platform. It chugs along, true – but only because it’s patched by hacks upon hacks like a steam engine contraption in rural India. When an innovator comes along and fixes one, or few problems, the result is instant success (Hotmail, Gmail, Box.net, Dropbox, Xobni, registered e-mail services such as Readnotify that’s providing the email delivery notifications shown below). You don’t need to be a great innovator to improve email -you just have to see the elephant in the room.

Readnotify has been providing these futuristic email services for several years

Email was introduced in 1965 as a local, intra-site service. It was not designed to be scalable for the global masses, not intended for everyday consumer use world-wide. Some of the functions we take for granted (e.g., attached files) are really ugly hacks from nearly half a century ago, from when cutting edge photography was the now-defunct Polaroid, and the Apple I was years in the future. Users accepted email’s clunkiness because mainframes are clunky, and because computers were so new and exciting. Cooper calls this “The Dancing Bear“: we are mesmerized by the dancing bear not because it dances well, but because it dances at all.

Let us look at what the dance of email software didn’t touch, so far. Curiously, we don’t perceive  spam or phishing as bugs of email platforms or software. Same goes for limitations on file size; actually, the very idea of sending an actual file, clogging the information freeway (instead of sending a link to an automatically hosted file) is incredible. To send a 1 MB to picture to ten people, email software might send it ten times instead of sending them all a link to a single file. Or consider the inability to schedule delivery; cancel delivery; receive confirmation on delivery; privacy; mailing lists; no undo, even if the mail you sent was still not received; no version control; you lose accidentally deleted email. These are bugs, glaring omissions and a source for inspiration for future features of email. 

We are so proud to be living on the cutting edge of technology! We tweet from a mobile phone (cost: up to $0.25) as we walk down to the post office to send a letter requiring legal confirmation (cost: about $5) like our grandparents. Excuse me if I’m not impressed.

Funny? Wait, how about confirmation calls? We sometimes use the phone to confirm the delivery of a particularly large file. We need to do that, because email systems will not generate an error message (or an apology) when rejecting files that were in fact not too large for the cellphone, camera, media player or most any other gadgets and applications.

Gmail tackled a few of these issues, with some success, but plenty remain. For ideas, just  check the list of companies producing services that should have been part of email in the first place, from box.net to “email later”. Those could be bought (not box.net, I’m afraid – too late) or built into Gmail, just like other rich and famous OS developers used to do.

These enhancements constitute the first, “no-brainer” tier of obvious problems screaming to be solved. Solving them would make billions jump for joy and columnists herald email 2.0. But it would be email 1.0, really, the one we never had. The real fun only starts here.

Email as a Personal Productivity Tool

Apart from email-as-message-delivery, competing with postal mail, email is also perceived as a productivity tool or task manager.

Adding a “task list” as Gmail did is one possible step; GTDinbox is one Gmail enhancement that demonstrates more radical possibilities (integrate and assimilate them, Google!).

People use email to keep to-do lists, AND communicate them. Arguably, people try to use email as a collaboration tool. Facebook seems to understand this.

Facebook is The New Email

All email had to offer in the collaboration dept. is Cc: and its dubious sibling, Bcc:. Nice feature for 1965, but social era users may be ready for more granularity and clarity.

Some of Facebook’s success stems from the fact that people use it as a better email. True, Facebook uses email to notify about messages; technically speaking, it is not an email service as such. But many Facebook users do not know the email addresses of their friends. As far as they are concerned, Facebook is a bona-fide electronic message service that replaces email perfectly.

This is supported by Nielsen’s data, claiming the popularity of social networking websites has surpassed that of email.

Facebook-as-email smoothly recognizes and integrates links and photos into messages, conveniently sends to multiple recipients without lists, and in Dec 2009 implemented privacy tweaks more granulated, but also more comprehensible, than Bcc:. It is designed for the 80% of email messages, which are very short and include a link to share.

The superior interface may explain Facebook’s success with women – the more practical gender. Facebook is frequented by 22% more women than men (Itunes.com, another very usable service has 50% more women visitors than men). (No, women are not less intelligent; quite the contrary. Where the genders differ is that we men, more than women, curiously find joy and pride in “configuring” a barely functioning system to temporarily work before it crashes again, where women are usually more interested in actually listening to the music and reading the emails).

Google Wave and the Future of Email

Google Wave’s messages look suspiciously like Facebook: authors are identified by a gravatar, it encourages short messages, it is all about sharing. Its sophisticated versioned collaboration is a generation ahead of Facebook, and a must-have for the corporate and semi-corporate world.

Those who ask what Google Wave is for, may be missing the point. What if Google Wave is an extended lab feature – extended in the sense that it looks at email as a subset of communication models. Hopefully, Google’s strategy considers meshing Wave and Gmail.  Is Facebook watching Wave, too? In a recent layout change, Facebook displays emails in dialog threads “between” users. Looks pretty Wavey to me!

While such developments do tackle the fascinating and promising issues of email-as-collaboration, I would bet that the market could still welcome fixes for the more obvious clunkers outlined above. Gmail had some of its huge first success by dramatically increasing the attachment size. Time for some more bold moves in that direction. You would not want to see your kids growing up attaching attachments, would you?

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  1. Do you think integrating Google Wave concept to G+ will be the end to the traditional mail?…

    Traditional email is a UX train wreck. Gmail.com made some improvements, but mostly by throwing cloud GBs to the crowds. But it’s not a webmail market leader and its traffic is declining. Integrating Google Wave concepts to G+ is definitely a thought …

  2. […] platforms around innovative social interaction concepts is inevitable. On Dec. 2009, I wrote “Hopefully, Google’s strategy considers meshing Wave and Gmail“. Google Wave’s team leader, Lars Rasmussen, has since joined Facebook, but others led […]

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