Archive for the ‘Email’ Category

There are people who think Outlook doesn’t need help?

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Charlie Cooper wrote this post today with the simple premise that Outlook is in need of a "a top-to-bottom overhaul."  That’s something I’d consider far from controversial.  Yet a number of the comments are from people who seem to think Outlook is just fine the way it is.  That sort of blows my mind!

Use Outlook for any decent amount of time with a good-sized mail file and things will slow to a crawl unless you aggressively perform mail file maintenance (check out these tips Brad put together on the CC blog – they are a lifesaver for heavy Outlook users).

Companies like ClearContext and Xobni building on the Microsoft platform, Xoopit on Gmail, and whole new platforms like Zenbe and Zimbra (not to mention a slew of older webmail providers) all exist largely due to the fact that there has simply not been much innovation around email in the last decade or so.

I recently wrote about three next steps for email – this need has been a recurring theme among bloggers for the last few years, and a bunch of startups are now working on various ways to make email better in ways that Microsoft has not been able to do with Outlook.  Charlie and others talk about a number of reasons why Microsoft has not been the company making these changes, but it’s largely a simple BigCo vs startup situation.  Each rev of Office/Outlook is a HUGE undertaking and every single change is part of a massive project planning and development process, making it tough to be very nimble.  On the other hand, by focusing just on specific areas, startups can move much faster, even building on top of the existing Outlook platform. 

And there’s another big issue here as well – integration with non-Microsoft services and applications.  To really take email into the next generation means seamless integration with a lot of applications, content, and services that don’t come out of the Microsoft world – not an area where Microsoft is likely to lead the charge.

Outlook most definitely can benefit from a lot of next-generation advancements around email, and unless Microsoft heeds Charlie’s advice about a major rewrite, it’s likely to be a lot of startups who will be addressing the problem.  So I guess I hope Microsoft listens to some of those commenters who think Outlook is just fine!

Three next steps for email

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

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 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.

Where are your contacts going to live?

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Xobni today revealed (to TechCrunch) some plans for a Yahoo Mail version of their product.  What they do with email (pulling conversation threads together, exposing who is linked to each other based on who is cc’ed, and some cool analytics features) is the less interesting part, though.  What’s most interesting and important about this news is that they have now officially announced their intention to enter the battle to be the place where your unified rich contact list lives.

Plaxo is probably the best known company specifically focusing on that space.  They started out as a pure play online contact manager, grown through aggressive spamming, but have overcome that initial stigma to regain a decent reputation (GoodContacts was an early player in this space that never gained the traction of Plaxo and was acquired by a few years ago, before this stuff really started heating up). Their new Plaxo Pulse service integrates the rich contact list with feeds/activity across the web.  Hmmm, remind you of something you’ve heard about recently?

Yes, FriendFeed and Socialthing! are two companies who are coming at the space from the social media aggregation side, and currently getting a lot of buzz.  These companies focus on pulling together all the information about your friends from various sites – it’s a logical and easy step to aggregate all the profile/contact info here as well. XoopIt is another cool company aggregating information from your friends/contacts.  Rather than focus on updates from social media sites, they are starting with a focus on one specific type of information from your contacts – pictures and videos.  What’s richer content around a contact than the media they send?

Of course, the most obvious contenders here are the source of much of the data for some of these companies.  Facebook, LinkedIn, and the nine zillion other social networks out there that many people already use as a sort of distributed online address book that is always up-to-date since everyone maintains their own account. And those other guys…. Microsoft (access to a couple of contact records via a few users of Outlook/Exchange, Hotmail, and various other services), Yahoo, Google and the other big players always loom large in areas like this.  But right now it looks like a bunch of much smaller companies are the ones making the really innovative moves forward in this space.

The biggest question here is whether or not a huge number of people are going to fully cede control/ownership of their address book to some company in the cloud that maintains a walled garden.  And I think the answer is no. The winner of this race is going to be the one who provides a set of rich services to aggregate all the information around contacts and keep them updated, but also give the user full control over the list of contacts.  That means letting the user export that address book to/from desktop apps, other online services, basically whatever they want to do.  With OpenSocial, DataPortability, and other standards/organizations starting to get a lot of buzz, there will be a lot of opportunity for someone to create a rich, distributed contact list service that is totally open.  Whoever does that and lets people integrate and access that list from various web services, their email client, their phone, and basically whatever/wherever the user wants will have created a very valuable and useful asset and service.  And as central access point for that data, one with huge network effect and user lockin.

Two marketing email common sense tips

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Taking a quick break from the strategic email posts/analysis to make a couple of points re: some very tactical email usage mistakes I’ve been noticing a ton lately as we’ve been spending more time looking at the nature and content of incoming email.  This is specifically directed at anyone who is sending out sales/marketing emails.  It’s amazing how much stuff you notice about emails when trying to automate the process of putting them in the right bucket.  Here are two big things that stand out.

Tip #1 : This is re: email marketing messages sent to broad audiences.  Test to see if your email is by default going to be spammed by the default Outlook Junk Mail Filter rules.  This is the easiest test in the world to do, and one of the easiest to address.  Yet companies continue to send emails that automatically get junked and never even make it to the inbox. 

Tip #2: This is re: directed/targeted email marketing messages send by and to specific individuals.  When you’re sending an email pitching your services to a specific individual at a company, spend an extra minute or two checking their website or doing a quick search to see if they publish their email address.  Sending an email to their real inbox rather than hoping an email to "[email protected]" will make it to them will increase your response rate significantly.  Pitch emails sent to generic inboxes are so much likelier to just be insta-deleted.

It’s pretty surprising to me that with email marketing having been around for so long, these fundamental mistakes are so common.  As email clients become more and more sophisticated, not making mistakes like this will become even more important.

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.