It’s the end of April and as Brad Feld and his partner Chris Wand point out, people are once again talking about the problems with email. Even the New York Times was back on the case (including a mention of ClearContext among the potential solutions). Why do I say back on the case? Well, there was a flurry of activity around the topic of email overload and potential new solutions in March and also in January …and November ’07 …and also October ’07 – I could go on…. Many of the articles/posts linked in those blog posts touch on a number of the same topics – all revolving around a number of deficiencies in email clients designed for a set of use cases developed many years ago that no longer reflect the realities of how email is used today.
Here are three key areas where email clients haven’t kept up with the pace of change:
Volume – email clients are designed around the concept of messages being handled on an individual "one-by-one" basis. That worked fine when emails were just the electronic versions of memos that used to be put on your desk. But with most information workers now receiving over 100 emails a day (and far, far more for many people), that approach is no longer feasible. This is largely block-and-tackle stuff. To handle this volume of information, email clients need to automate the processing overhead to make it easier for people to quickly process the email and figure out which emails actually require action and attention. This also includes taking the level of granularity up a degree and pulling related messages and threads together so users can deal with sets of information rather than wading through messages one by one.
Integration – email clients are for the most part a silo designed for handling email messages really well. Many of them have calendars and other PIM functionality tacked on, but it’s usually exactly that – tacked on. Email has become a dynamic project management and collaboration tool where people routinely exchange status updates and work assignments for projects, have group discussions, and often replace status and planning meetings with emails. That requires real integration between all of the pieces of information beyond the emails themselves – the associated task lists, appointments, documents, etc. And integration extends beyond the email platform to external applications on servers or in the cloud (CRM, project management, HR, basically any enterprise app) that require all that data – a process that now often involves cumbersome manual exporting or copying of that information from the messaging platform to the application. I wrote yesterday about a number of companies that are focused on this integration specifically around contacts – which now encompass a far richer, wider, and more dynamic set of information than just the traditional address book. Contacts are just one piece of a much bigger and more interesting puzzle – putting that together so businesses can take advantage of all the data exchanged across email is a very interesting and exciting opportunity.
Context – email clients are also pretty dumb. With some rare exceptions (meeting requests, for example), they handle and present all incoming messages exactly the same way. Messages with your friend’s new baby pictures, Facebook notifications, a project update, and someone inviting you to lunch are all completely different classes of message that should be processed in completely different ways. Some companies are starting to recognize this – Xoopit, for example, is starting out by doing special things w/ media (photos, videos, etc.) sent to Gmail accounts. There are countless opportunities to do intelligent context-specific processing of messages. I’ll expand on this soon in a post that lays out the primary classes of email and how they can be handled much better than the way most email clients currently work.
In his blog post, Chris highlights Salesforce.com as a company that looks at itself as "not just as an application but as a platform to facilitate the
gathering, organization and integration of data across disparate
sources and applications and because they recognize that data are more
useful and actionable when freed rather than trapped." That’s definitely the future of email and email platforms. Email has become, and for the foreseeable future will remain, the central hub of activity around which the majority of business activities take place. But email as a platform will lose much of its allure if that data can’t be seamlessly accessed and shared with applications looking to add or pull out value from all of those communications. At ClearContext, our upcoming release (currently in beta) is focused on building structure around the data in email based on identifying the implicit relationships between all the pieces of information that can be gleaned just from observing existing user behaviors – and providing value in ways that benefit the individual user, but can also be expanded across the enterprise. Check the ClearContext blog for updates – we’ll be opening the beta program to the public soon.