Having read dozens of blog posts and articles about "Inbox 2.0" the most common reaction I’ve had is "yawn." Now, there are a number of people who get it – I linked to a few of them in yesterday’s post.
However, most of what people are talking about when they talk about next generation email and Inbox 2.0 is really just Address Book 2.0. Attempts at universal, always up-to-date, web-based address books have been around since I started using the Internet. Perhaps the best-known of the latest crop of such companies is Plaxo, which has had a few takes at/around the challenge. I remember using one really hyped one around the time sixdegrees.com was pretty popular. It worked out so well I can’t even remember its name now.
Things have changed a lot since then, and notions of universal digital identity are becoming more realistic, and definitely more important. People’s digital identity now spans far beyond email, reaching across multiple sites with profiles, various e-commerce sites, blogs and discussion forums – I could go on for a long time. Site like RapLeaf, Chainn, and ProfileLinker are just a few of dozens of sites trying to pull together consolidated digital identities online. In fact, that’s actually worth a post of its own that I’ll tackle soon.
And that’s what a lot of the "Inbox 2.0" articles were all about – using email as the basis for the types of things social networking sites are doing and companies like those are doing. But in reality, most of the people you care about emailing, you already KNOW that information. OK, great, now I have Joe’s birthday and favorite books linked in my email address book – value add for sure, but nothing that really drives the email experience forward. Making the address book better with richer profiles and contact information and other social networking style info is beneficial, but doesn’t really address the main problems with email.
For that to happen, I think it comes down to three important I’s:
Information – This is the most important thing that email brings. Every email address is surrounded by a wealth of information and context. Yet all of this information is spread across various message threads from various contacts. Utilizing (and storing in an easily accessible manner) this information to understand the nature and relationship of emails and contacts is a key first step. The value of all that information in the email is pretty obvious, so I’ll skip the examples.
Interface – That’s the next big one. Email clients are, even new web-based ones, fundamentally unchanged from email clients of 10 years ago. Even something as new as Gmail is basically the same messaging metaphor that has been in place forever. Yet email has transcended messaging to become something much bigger. Is it a one-to-one communication medium? Is it a project management app? Is it a time and status reporting app? Is it a group collaboration tool? I could keep going, but the answer is simple. Yes. There’s a huge opportunity for advanced interfaces to better support all of these activities that people do via email, as well as creating better interfaces to deal with specific types of individual messages based on the nature of the information contained in them.
Integration – Email messages are one silo of information. Contacts are another. Appointments, hey over here in my calendar. Tasks? Yeah, here’s a to-do list. That’s information that is often stored close to each other, but still in separate silos. Intelligently integrating them is an important step forward. But beyond those, there’s a wealth of external data that begs to be integrated within the context of email discussions. In some cases that’s simply data from another communication medium – IMs or SMS or feeds. In other cases, it’s contextually related data like maps to addresses (Zimbra/Yahoo is one company that has started to touch on that). And this can extend to integration with other applications that interact with email-based data.
And there are plenty of other I’s like interaction, identity, and input that also will come into play in the winning solutions.
This is the opportunity for the next-generation of email applications, not just a souped up address book or email-driven Facebook clone.