Author Archive

Jeremiah Owyang – Email Consumes Us

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

One of the savviest new media/Web 2.0/social media/etc blogger/analyst/commentators out there, Jeremiah Owyang, just wrote a great post on how Email Consumes Us.   This comes on the heels of Michael Arrington’s post on email troubles that I just wrote about.

As I’ve been writing about for a while, the very nature of email itself is changing.  Two major things have changed about email in the past few years.  The volume (duh, more!) and the nature (it’s no longer just individual messages, it’s projects and tasks and collaboration).

Yet email clients are still fundamentally designed to process messages one by one and treat them as independent units of data.  That approach just doesn’t scale and doesn’t reflect the type of connected and context-rich information contained within email.

Somewhat ironically, web-based solutions are by and large using email as the standard notification hub, actually increasing the requirement for more intelligent and sophisticated email processing.  Next generation solutions for email are going to have to be much smarter about handling email intelligently and in much bigger chunks than just one message at a time.

Email is out of control.  We hear you, and we’re working on it very hard!  Many thousands of business email users are already using ClearContext to stay on top of their email and actually get their work done, but we’re just getting started.  I expect you’ll see a lot of other players entering the space as well, because this problem isn’t going away anytime soon.  The level of pain people feel with email is opening the door to a whole new generation of solutions, and we intend to be right at the forefront of this email revolution.

Email etiquette: Thanks

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

I grew up being taught to say please and thank you as just a matter of simple courtesy for actions large and small.  But more and more, I find this to be at odds w/ polite and efficient email practices.  A quick scan finds a number of other people with similar opinions:

Is your e-mail necessary, important or useful? If not, don’t send
it. That includes unnecessary replies, such as “Okay, thanks,” or “Take
it easy.” 

My personal view is that just saying thanks as a way of acknowledging
an email is pretty pointless. But expressing gratitude in the right
context is a necessary part of courtesy.

Don’t send e-mails
that simply say "Thanks."

and some strong opinions on both sides of the issue in response to Paul McNamara’s blog entry on the question Thanks or no thanks?

Now, there are many lengthy projects/exchanges or situations where people put in a lot of effort, and those cases merit an actual response expressing your gratitude.

But if the appropriate level of response to someone’s email is simply "Thanks" and nothing more, then I lean towards just not sending anything – and expressing your thanks by not popping up one more thing on their Blackberry or one more item in their inbox for them to delete.

So, if you’ve forwarded me an interesting article recently or answered some question with a quick helpful one-liner response and didn’t hear back – Thanks!

Hi, TechCrunch. I can solve your email problems.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

A while back I wrote about my email and inbox thesis.  Today Michael Arrington posted about the 2,433 unread emails he has and the problems he has dealing with emails in general.  Well, we’ve already solved a lot of those problems with ClearContext IMS by automatically prioritizing emails for people as well as automating the process of processing and organizing all those emails.  In our upcoming release that is currently in the testing cycle, we go beyond emails, tasks, and appointments to also help people manage the contacts related to a project and all the documents that pass through their inbox.

I want to highlight a couple of specific points Michael makes:

"I scan the from and subject fields for high payoff messages." – NO, NO, NO!  Nobody with any volume can do that and stay on top of email.  By analyzing your email history and all sorts of contextual clues about incoming email, this is something that can be done automatically Prioritized_inbox
– and we do. 

"I currently have 2,433 unread emails in my inbox."
– You’re not alone, we hear this all the time.  But combining technology with an email management process, that’s a problem that can be solved.  Here’s what people are saying: "In 3 days, I had reduced my 600+ inbox (and all new emails received in those 3 days) to ZERO!"  "When I first installed the program I had exactly 688 messages in my
inbox! Now, I’ve neatly organized it into manageable topic folders
& threads."  "My inbox is down to 0 from a starting point of about 7,500." "…I have gone from having over 1 thousand old emails in my inbox… to
having just this mornings emails in there. I can’t tell you how
refreshing it feels."  That’s all without resorting to "email bankruptcy" or anything like that.

"If I knew what that solution was, I’d quit this blog and go do it."
We’re on the lookout for smart new team members!  Call me.

"Drop by my house and tell me all about it."OK, seeya soon.

We’ve started out with the biggest business communication medium and application – email and Outlook.  But there’s a whole world of messaging that our solutions apply to and we look forward to incorporating all of those information streams into our solutions.  When it comes to information overload, things are only going to get worse.  But we’re here to make them better.

Mozilla Messaging launches to move Thunderbird forward

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Mozilla Messaging, a subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, launched today and stated that their "first priority is to help drive the evolution of the Thunderbird email program."

Their CEO, David Ascher wrote a detailed blog post about the new company.

Working on "integrated calendaring" is one of their key initial priorities.  That’s something that makes a ton of sense as messaging has become so much more important for people than just exchanging standalone messages.  This is sort of block and tackle stuff, but a very important step in making the right messaging client.

Moving forward, they have a lot of plans for addressing integration issues for "someone using multiple email addresses, multiple instant messaging
systems, IRC, reading and writing on blogs, using VoIP, SMS, and the
like."  Bringing context to broad sets of communications across various mediums is right in line with the way I see the future of messaging headed.

"Finding out what’s important or new was obvious?" is the type of longer-term issue they are dealing with.  I look forward to sharing some of what we have learned about this over the past few years at ClearContext with the folks at Mozilla Messaging.

It’s excited to see more and more innovation in and around the email and messaging space.  Email is not going away, but is in dire need of a next generation of clients and solutions to deal with it effectively and take full advantage of all the information exchanged.

How would MSFT-YHOO impact innovation in email?

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Tim O’Reilly and Bill Tancer have commented on the email, especially webmail, market share that a combined Microsoft and Yahoo would have.  So what does that mean for the email landscape and innovation in this area?

Here are some numbers in terms of seats looking at the email assets of both companies:

#1 corporate email: MS Outlook/Exchange >100 million seats worldwide (Radicati)
#1 Webmail: Yahoo Mail >250 million seats worldwide (TechCrunch)
#2 Webmail: MS Live/Hotmail >200 million seats worldwide (TechCrunch)
open source: Yahoo Zimbra >8 million paid seats worldwide (Zimbra)

That’s about as broad a spectrum of dominance as you can get in a market.

Microsoft makes over a billion dollars a year selling Exchange server according to Radicati.  Zimbra was created to provide an open source competitor to Exchange that could beat it based on price, deployment cost, hardware requirements, etc. –  basically all element total cost of ownership.  On top of that, Zimbra has really been innovating in areas like integrating their email client with web services.

If this deal happens, I’d expect Microsoft’s focus to be on two things when it comes to email.

1: Continuing to focus on the things that lead to the cash cow – Exchange Server sales.  Things that IT decision makers care about like server management, scalability, reliability, archiving, backup, etc.  Microsoft probably has plenty of work left in areas like that if companies like Teneros are getting $40m in funding for a product to keep email running when Exchange goes down. 

2: Figuring out more and better ways to optimize ad serving across all those web mailboxes as part of their overall fight with Google in the online advertising market.

Neither of those focus areas hold a lot of promise for a lot of continued investment in the types of next-generation email solutions that Zimbra was coming out with, plus the features arms race on the client side between Yahoo/Microsoft/AOL/Gmail likely just slowed down quite a bit.

All of that means a lot of opportunity for ClearContext and others in our space who are focusing on new and more powerful ways for people to deal with overwhelming volumes of inbound email and other information. 

2008’s Problem of the Year: Information Overload

Monday, February 4th, 2008

OK, so still catching up on the blogging front, but I’m getting there.

At the end of 2007, analyst firm Basex predicted the biggest problem of the year for 2008: Information Overload.  Well, you won’t find any disagreement here – in a world where people continue to be bombarded with more and more pieces of information via more and more different mediums of communication, information overload continues to be the single largest drag on productivity in the business world.

The NY Times and ArsTechnica blogged about some of the specific findings in the Basex research and the broader problem people are facing trying to deal with all this information.

Michael Sampson provided a contrarian viewpoint, claiming that this isn’t "information overload" but simply more complex communication coordination challenges (yeah, I did that on purpose) and that all this communication back and forth is actually what comprises the core of a lot of people’s primary work responsibility. 

While Michael has some valid points, I think they are largely issues of semantics, and he really avoids what I consider the main point.  Many business workers today are simply faced with more inbound information than they can deal with given the tools they have at their disposal to deal with this information.  Yet, these communications, as Michael states, are vital to their work.  That’s what’s behind the $650 Billion drain on productivity that Basex is highlighting, and information overload is a term that defines the problem very succinctly and accurately.

I just posted my email thesis that touches on a number of these points.  There’s no question people face information overload and it’s a major problem for them.  And addressing that problem is going to require new ways to look at information in a broader context across various silos of data and various mediums of communication.  Only when tools (both sender and recipient side) to address the information overload are in place will people really be ready to start thinking about some of the broader knowledge sharing and communication issues Michael mentions.

My email and inbox thesis

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I have a relatively simple thesis regarding the future of email that drives a lot of the product decisions we make at ClearContext.  A couple of recent blog posts I read touched on related themes, so it feels like a good time to toss out my high-level thoughts on email, the inbox, and email clients. 

Steven Hodson asks Why is email stuck in the 80’s?  I think that’s a very appropriate question, and the fact that it even needs to be asked is a big part of why ClearContext exists.

My core thesis is quite simple:

The volume of information that  people (people in this context refers primarily to "information workers" but is rapidly growing to include just about everyone) receive via email is far more than they can process effectively using the sequential processing of individual messages for which most email clients are designed.  At the same time, the information and the range of tasks/actions that flow through email are increasing in scope, importance, and variety.  This necessitates new means of information processing consisting of the following elements: prioritization of incoming email, categorization of information, aggregation of related information, and context-specific actions for different types of information.  This allows users to process information more effectively by taking advantage of the context of the information to provide a set of relevant actions to deal with information at a higher level than a single message basis.

Steven mentions social-networking in his post.  One point worth mentioning is that my thoughts around email and information flow revolve around the context of the information in terms of what topic or subject it applies to, rather than being contact-centric.  Social networking to me is about discovering contacts and keeping up to date with their activities.  In email, you already have a one-to-one relationship with the people you’re emailing with, so the more important information processing challenge is understanding what the communication is about and how to deal with it.

Ethan Kaplan would like to "auto-group threads of messages and group those threads according to
implicit thematics. You would be able to weight whether to group more
by sender, by subject, by lexical analysis, etc."  That’s a big part of where we’re headed with ClearContext.  We already group related threads and other information together automatically.  And we let users weight how much different email characteristics impact the prioritization of those messages.  What we don’t do a lot of yet is content analysis, but we’re already taking some interesting steps in that direction.  More importantly, we’re working on a lot of interesting features to give Outlook users (still just Outlook for now, but we’re listening!) more control about how the client deals with different types of incoming information utilizing the contextual information available.  In terms of where email clients need to get to handle the volume and nature of information people have to deal with today, Ethan is right on target.

If you’re interested in getting in on the early betas of our new releases, leave a comment or send an email.

Ethan and Steven both mention Tim Ferriss’ post on Email Outsourcing.  Having recently taken a three-week vacation from email, I know a lot of what he talks about is definitely possible.  My personal take, though, is that much of what he talks about can be accomplished by the email client itself – it just needs to get smarter!  And hopefully we’ll be successful at making that happen.

BTW, I’ve made some posts in the past touching on some of the specifics that come into play when implementing solutions in these areas – The Four A’s and The Three I’s are two good ones to start with, plenty of links within them.

Three weeks without being online? WHAT!?!

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I’m back in the US of A!  OK, well, I’ve actually been back for 3 weeks now.  But it still feels like I just got back.  Before really getting back to blogging, wanted to give some quick observations on being gone and away from all sorts of online communication.

On my family trip to India from Dec. 12 – Jan 1, even though I had easy access if I really wanted to, I made a concerted effort not to get online or do work.  I spent a grand total of zero minutes on the phone during that period and 1.5 total hours online in 3 sessions, almost all of that checking email.  I didn’t read any online news or any online blogs.  I didn’t check Facebook or Twitter or web traffic reports or stock tickers or anything.

And it was really refreshing and invigorating.

Like I said, I did check email 3 times to make sure nothing critical had come up regarding key deals/milestones/etc. for ClearContext.  But, besides that, I let my away message handle everything else.  Of course, this was possible due to planning ahead and delegating things to a very capable team.  But the main thing to point out that many of us forget is that it actually is possible.

Upon my return, I spent two days getting my inbox down from thousands to about 50 emails that required more than a one-line response.  There’s no question that the prioritization and categorization capabilities of ClearContext were a huge help in doing this.  By my third day back I was back to an empty Inbox.  I shudder to think how much longer it would have taken to get through my inbox processing everything sequentially and individually.

Perhaps even more eye-opening to me was how many blog entries and news items I read when checking every day, as opposed to when I bunch them up.  I had many RSS feeds with over 100 items that I was able to scan and only felt it necessary to read a couple of items, whereas I would have likely read a couple of items every day from those feeds if I were checking frequently.  After three weeks away, I felt caught up on both news and technology in just a few hours. I’m definitely going to check most of my feeds less often.  The same thing applies to news sites.  For most stories, I can definitely more than make do with far fewer updates.  And it definitely didn’t hurt to check things like Facebook quite infrequently.  Some things to think about in terms of where those little chunks of time go.

OK, I’ll leave you with a few cool India pictures I stole from my brother-in-law Jeff before getting back to serious blogging!


The Amber Fort in Jaipur.  Amazing.

The Taj Mahal in Agra, amazing that they were able to build things like this hundreds of years ago.  The next picture shows the scale of the Taj.2167466383_d41d3f4a12


Some white rhinos we saw in Northern India on safari.

And, of course, me on an elephant!

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 10th, 2007

I feel like the mall, wishing people happy holidays before the middle of the month, haha.  Heading to India later this week, so I’ll be taking a break from blogging until after the holidays.  I have 42 blog post ideas queued up in my list, so lots of writing on tap for 2008.  Best wishes to everyone for a fun and safe rest of the year.

Revisiting the segmented contact network

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

I wrote about how people have different levels of contacts for use in different contexts previously on this blog.  We’ve been working on a lot of interesting projects at ClearContext around these segmented contact networks – the intersection of contact and context information I mentioned in my post on "Inbox 2.0."  We’re currently developing some pretty sophisticated features around this that are deeply integrated within people’s workflow in Outlook and the context of their actions within the email client.  However, while building out those features, we realized that the basic step of identifying groups of contacts from within sets of email folders and prioritizing them in order of their relevance to conversations in those folders is pretty useful for things like creating email distribution lists and uploading subsets of your entire contact list to social networking sites.  So we decided to release one of the building blocks of that functionality as a beta feature in our IMS product.  Om writes about it on Web Worker Daily and we’ve put up a simple ClearContext Contact Exporter for Outlook webpage.  Go check it out!  I’m very interested in hearing how people use this and what sort of ways you see this type of functionality being built out.