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Summary:

With every birthday reminder, bill confirmation, new friend, direct message, password recovery, and mailing list, the content of our inboxes becomes less and less a means of communication and more and more a record of all we do online. But if inboxes don’t fundamentally change in order to adapt to their new role as the keeper of myriad transactions across the entire web, they’ll be obsolete.

My inbox is broken.

Not in an I-can’t-check-my-messages kind of way, but in a fundamental, inboxes-will-never-be-the-same-again kind of way.

Analysis of inbox traffic for 30 daysWith every birthday reminder, bill confirmation, new friend, direct message, password recovery, and mailing list, the content of our inboxes becomes less and less a means of communication and more and more a record of all we do online. Email is the lowest common denominator of digital identity. It’s our web keychain. It’s the catch-all of our online lives.

But if inboxes don’t fundamentally change in order to adapt to their new role as the keeper of myriad transactions across the entire web, they’ll be obsolete.

Have a look at your inbox. Chances are much of what’s in there isn’t just traditional email conversations between you and someone else. A few hours of unscientific inbox querying and a quick analysis with Mail Trends showed that less than half of my messages in the last month consisted of such simple correspondence. The other half were records of things I’d done, people who’d followed me on social networks, bookings I’d made, confirmations of sites I’d signed up for, and so on.

Companies like Xobni and Xoopit offer email analytics, as do some Firefox plug-ins, but everyone still assumes that what’s in an inbox is predominantly conversations with people. It’s not.

Inboxes need to get smarter. My perfect email client would:

  • Scan incoming messages and build a list of all the companies I’ve paid, and those with whom I have recurring payments, showing spending history.
  • Keep all my logins and password recoveries for online accounts in one place, safely encrypted.
  • Group and track mailing list digests, and give me controls to unsubscribe from them.
  • Show me all interactions with each of my friends in one place, regardless of whether they happened on email, Facebook, Friendfeed, or Twitter. OpenID holds promise here, but has yet to be properly integrated into inboxes.
  • Track and analyze transactions semantically, from upcoming travel to events I’m attending.

Today, I have to visit dozens of other sites and services to make sense of my online life. This is a waste: I already have a record of all these transactions in my inbox. I just need a better way to look at them.

Gmail offered a tantalizing glimpse of what inboxes could be, but stopped short of recognizing this shift from conversations to a digital record of our online lives. The inbox of the future looks more like logfile analysis and aggregation and less like an email platform. Today, you can hack some of this together with Greasemonkey scripts, clever Gmail filters, or add-ins from Gmail labs. But it’s not enough: We need an inbox that embraces its new role as the universal record of our online lives.

  1. awesome article Alistair, and thanks for mentioning Xobni. I will offer that while deep under the hood, xobni is processing a lot of email analytics, the utility of our product has much more to do with organizing your inbox around people and companies; we help you quickly find information relating to both.

    Additionally, we have partnered with Facebook, Yahoo Mail, and LinkedIn to bring those communication channels into the inbox. There will be much more coming from us in that direction.

    As for semantic analysis of your transaction, travel, and event emails – that is part of our dream, and we hope to provide more of that soon.

    I hear your pain.

    Best,
    Matt Brezina
    Founder, Xobni

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    1. If only Xobni wasn’t tied to Outlook. On one hand this makes sense since Outlook is broken and needed Xobni to make it useable again. On the other hand these are obvious innovations that shouldn’t be tied to a dead end software client, set them free!

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      1. Newsflash for bloggers and twitterers: Outlook is, by far, the most used email client. And yes, the fact that it has some major deficiencies, especially around search, leads to major opportunities.

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      2. Is Outlook used because of its features or because it is forced upon the corporate user? What do people use personally?

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      3. Outlook sucks. The people who use it either are forced to use it by their employers or don’t know any better. The latter group is hopelessly lost anyway and not much will help them.

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      4. Chalk it to clueless employers. I tried Outlook Express ’cause it came with Windows and talked to Hotmail. Microsoft fixed that — I ditched it years ago. At work, I’m stuck with shiny Outlook 2007 (check your calendar, yup?, ok…).

        Outlook not only cries out for plug-ins, it cries out for a replacement. Work doesn’t give me “admin”, so even plug-ins are … (God bless Evolution …)

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      5. I like Outlook, as a suite. my Company forces me to use Lotus Notes on my work computer I transfer everything I can to personal Outlook, it has a superior Calendar, and the address book and journaling are great, the e-mail client might be weak, but in the grand scheme of usage e-mail is only a portion of what Outlook can be used for. I am glad Xobni chose outlook and not the likes of Thunder Bird or other.

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    2. You are spot on in your analysis. A revolution is underway.

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  2. I’ve been talking to friends and colleagues about such enhancements to email clients for a while, and its exciting to see your article on the same topic!
    You’re absolutely correct in saying that our email inboxes have become unstructured repositories of all kinds of information, and this presents the need and opportunity to perform all kinds of information analysis and ‘grooming’, to help users tag and structure their data. A feature I’d add to your list above, would be for email clients to keep track of things like “returned emails, email address change notifications, and new email id’s from existing names”, to intelligently distill out such info and help reflect the same in the address book (perhaps interactively).

    Take care,
    -v

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  3. Eh–I’m not really buying this.

    First of all, you’re looking at a VERY specific segment. Very few people would have 21% of their inbox comprised of Twitter follows. More importantly, the type of person who would have 21% Twitter follows would know how to use Gmail filters. For me, all my Twitter notes are filtered to skip my inbox and go into the Twitter label. Facebook skips and goes to the Facebook label. I only sign up for accounts (bank, registrations, etc.) using a a junk version of my gmail (putting an extra period in the gmail address and filtering). My e-mail is my primary source of information–my inbox is clean, relevant, and efficient. I scroll through Facebook and Twitter notifications at my leisure. So, for people like me/us, e-mail is still relevant and doesn’t need to change.

    More importantly, for the 98% of e-mail users who don’t really use Twitter and don’t mind getting their Facebook notifications, e-mail is still great and doing its job.

    This isn’t to say the emergence of social networks shouldn’t be integrated more thoroughly into gmail. There really should be Facebook/MySpace/Twitter plugins to Gmail, which leverages APIs and has its own section. It would help with the clutter you mention, as well.

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    1. Good feedback. I think we will see social networks integrating into gmail soon

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    2. Agreed. The author is assuming that 90% of people online are internet savvy and who bounce around on different social networks. I turn off all email notifications from facebook, twitter, brightkite and myspace, that way I will check them in my off time and am not constantly stuck to my phone browsing at every available opportunity. If somebody needs to contact me instantly they can send me a (pushed) email notification if the app isn’t running.

      My inbox is always clear and everything is sorted into appropriate folders. No need for some kind of inbox revolution here.

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      1. I know Pwb, I didn’t need you reaffirming it though.

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      2. I agree. You sound like you use some form of GTD. Works for me: clean inbox, etc.

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    3. yes…filters have been around for ages….but why can’t there be something better?

      take a look at personal finance packages like Mint, Quicken etc…
      they use collective intelligence to categorize your transactions and allow them to be visualized, browsed more efficiently…

      mail clients do this sort of thing with SPAM…

      …but how about applying the wisdom of the crowds to stuff that ISN’T SPAM…
      how many millions of users use facebook? why do I need to create a specific filter to deal with this? Can’t there be a client that can categorize all of your email BY DEFAULT (based on how most TYPICAL behave)…from there you can decide what to do with your already categorized email?

      Xobni and Xoopit sounded like they were putting some focus in these areas…so far it’s been a bit disappointing…and Xoopit actually adds to the SPAM! wtf?

      …of course I should just get off my ass and build this myself…but I know I’m pretty lazy, so here’s to hoping someone else will :)

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      1. “why do I need to create a specific filter to deal with this? Can’t there be a client that can categorize all of your email BY DEFAULT (based on how most TYPICAL behave)…from there you can decide what to do with your already categorized email?”

        Simple…because over 90% of people wouldn’t know what’s going on and would end up confused/frustrated. Think about how much effort Google has made in explaining what tags are and why they’re better than folders, and people are still confused and not making the best use of them. To start auto-filtering things would be confusing and you’d never match the filtering preferences of many of your users correctly (i.e. some might want different folders for groups of friends, or want messages to stay unread, or flagging of different kinds of notifications from the same service, etc.)

        I think for the vast majority of people, filters and tags like those in Gmail are sufficient to managaing email, though many don’t know how to use them or set them up. It’s always tough to make things like that simple enough for the least technical users. This article is talking about solutions that probably affect less than 5% of email users, so it’s not surprising that there hasn’t been a lot of movement on it.

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  4. Maybe you need to get smarter. There’s no good reason you “need” to receive Facebook notifications in your email inbox. Turn off the email alerts, dork!

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  5. No, Thanks. Only my secretary can filter all this information.

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  6. I absolutely use my Google Apps account as a searchable database of logins, passwords, account #’s, etc. More and more of that stuff is going into 1Password where it is encrypted and protected, but there is lots of reference stuff in my email. Fortunately, searching in gmail/google apps is really fast (much faster than on my laptop).

    Still, I’m looking for something better. Today I signed up to check out otherinbox.com which appears to be very close to what you are asking for. I became interested because of the co-founders is speaking at RailsConf on SproutCore and how Cocoa (Mac/iPhone) programming principles in SproutCore have helped him become a better developer.

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  7. i could not agree more. Email starts to become unsmart. That s why we are trying to bring back some smartness to email with Topify.com and make notifications more meaningfull and actionnable

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  8. email is being replaced by IM not twitter

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  9. This problem was solved 19 years ago. You want procmail. http://procmail.org/

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