2 simple tweaks that would make email useful again

August 4th, 2010 § 3 comments

Major telegraph lines in 1891
Image via Wikipedia

It’s been ages since I last blogged here, mainly because I write too many emails these days. I actually wrote IMAP client to analyse this phenomenon, and it turned out I process something like 1000 emails per week. By process I mean read/write incoming/outgoing. I’m sure most of people doing business online these days are even worse-off.

So being a startup product guy, I was thinking what’s wrong with it and how to make it useful again.

I realized that there is only one thing missing in the whole email protocol. One simple concept, that has been around since human beings started communicating – ability to flag the messages with level importance. Sure the ‘urgent’ flag exists, but I believe it is not used because of a design mistake.

Think old-fashioned mail: there we have a three-part structure of the service:

  1. Sender can choose to send the package as ‘normal’ or as ‘priority’, depending on how important it is for him that it is delivered timely. Yes this was due to logistical limitations of the medium, but it also protected receivers from getting overwhelmed.
  2. At the same time, the receiver doesn’t have to pick the mail up immediately.
  3. And for truly urgent things we have telegrams

These ensure that all possible situations are covered – ability to send, control of own time, emergency situations.

Now, in digital world we can flag messages as ‘urgent’, and the only people really using this are PR spammers. So what went wrong? At the same time we completely dropped the (2), with an explanation that the receiver can choose to read at will. I believe this should be handled appropriately based on the social relationships.

So here are the two things email protocol lacks:

  • Social flagging: If my wife sends me email, I want to know about it immediately, and I’m ok if I read everything else only every hour or so. Right now, because of the way email works, I can only choose to see everything all the time. It’s great that the web can be real-time, but if it is all-time it starts to cause serious productivity problems.
  • Different urgent: Sometimes my wife will send me message she knows is not urgent and she wouldn’t want to bother me with it while at work. Because of the way email works she can only choose to send it now or wait and remember to send it later. The founding fathers of e-mail screwed up severely – in a real-time medium the internet today is we need the NOT-urgent flag. Most email programs don’t make it easy to do delayed sending, and it wouldn’t really solve this issue anyway, because I might be interested in reading non-urgent email during my lunch break.

We need email client that understands standard emails and ships them once per hour and priority that is delivered immediately. We need it on both ends – the senders and the readers. And I should be able to state mail from whom I want to see as soon as it arrives, and which should be delivered every hour.

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