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Summary:

Email isn’t exactly the sexiest of technologies, but it takes up the majority of our attention, and is screaming for improvement from entrepreneurs. So what’s the hurdle? Tons of clients, and tons of platforms, but here are a couple startups taking a stab.

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Technology’s march is unstoppable, but no one has figured out how to extend the day: it’s still only 24 hours long, and each one of those hours are up for grabs. And while a lot has changed when it comes to how people spend their computing hours, a huge chunk of those hours are still spent dealing with one of the oldest and most practical technologies: email.

So why aren’t more startups working on email, ripe for disruption and demanding of our attention spans? Silicon Valley accelerator and seed fund 500 Startups gathered email engineers, startups, and product managers for their InboxLove conference in Mountain View on Wednesday to talk about innovation in email, a decidedly un-sexy but valuable topic.

A huge portion of the workday is still spent on email, an old-school technology developed decades ago that hasn’t changed a great deal since its early years. A recent study of high tech office workers by Gloria Mark at the University of California Irvine found those workers spent about 23 percent of the day on email, checking it up to 36 times per hour. Email is ingrained in the workforce, and while it causes plenty of people stress and unhappiness, it’s probably not going away any time soon.

People are working to innovate in email, but as David Troy, CEO at 410 Labs, pointed out, the range and diversity of email platforms and clients people use make it incredibly tough to find a solution that works for everyone. There’s Microsoft’s Exchange and Hotmail, Google’s Gmail, Yahoo’s Yahoo Mail, and even AOL’s new client called Alto.

“The email market is kind of a ghetto,” he said.

And then once you get beyond a person’s actual client, you have to consider their attitudes toward reading, sorting, deleting and filtering. Are you an Inbox Zero person? A let-it-all-pile-up person? Do you even know what archiving is? (Troy points out that many people don’t.) So this means that one person’s idea of an email solution dream might make absolutely no sense to someone else. Everyone has their own email habits, and engineers trying to innovate in the space need to understand the client’s habits, which isn’t easy.

“You are an email engineer at an entire conference about email. You are not average,” he said. “Everybody has their own strange little set of rituals to manage this over time, and they just assume everyone else has the same set of rituals, and since we’re not all email anthropologists, we all just assume that’s normal. We have to overcome that cognitive bias.”

So who are the people building cool solutions for email, and who are they targeting? Most of the startups at InboxLove were building for Gmail and Outlook, and most of them were tackling productivity and the idea that people wrongly use email as a to-do list, and then let it consume them. Here were some of the apps I thought were interesting:

Gander.io

Gander.io uses a responsive design to create a virtual inbox that lets you drag and drop emails into “read” “skim” and “respond” sections. It works with Exchange or Gmail, and its tagline is that it will “always put meeting requests ahead of cat videos.” The drag and drop looks really easy, although it might not work for power email users, who might find it better-suited for sorting on the go via mobile, and then composing via webmail or email client later on.

Unsubscriber

I was most excited about this app, which addresses my personal pet peeve of email listservs that spam you with advertisements and newsletters you really don’t want. The app aggregates the different email newsletters you’re subscribed to, and provides a handy way to unsubscribe en masse. The app does its best to unsubscribe you from the lists it can, although the founders said some apps might prove more difficult than others. It’s available for download in the Apple app store.

Boomerang

Boomerang for Gmail brings in some useful features like scheduling emails and re-surfacing emails that don’t get a reply, putting you a little more in control of the emails you send and receive. The company writes that it believes in “real email productivity,” and it also provides Boomerang for Outlook.

Textbox.io

Plenty of apps have gained popularity for providing clean, empty text editors for the desktop, but here’s an app that provides a full-screen text editor for email. Textbox.io provides a full set of writing tools for Gmail and Tumblr, giving consumers the physical space to do what email is meant to do — write things.

NotifyMeNot

NotifyMeNot probably isn’t meant for the same person who wants the Unsubscriber app, since it assumes you might want some of those marketing emails you signed up for. Instead, the site walks you through email settings for popular sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, which can inundate you with notification emails and quickly clog up your inbox. It might not win over early tech adopters who have these things down, but it’s easy to see how it would appeal to the average Facebook or LinkedIn user.

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  1. Where is Om? How can he permit this specious article to get past his editors? The tech elite — all 5,000 of them — hate email. Virtually everyone else — easily a few billion — love it. Most people don’t receive 200 press releases every day like you tech journalists. Email is not broken. Step out of your own shoes and into the shoes of the average person.

    Again, where is Om? Where is the man who wrote this insightful article on GigaOm?
    http://gigaom.com/2007/09/20/is-email-the-ultimate-social-environment/

    1. N, that seems like a fairly harse response to a summary item giving some updates on startups that are attempting to address email from different angles. We all use the universal killer app in different ways, infact depending on work or home account its use cases are different even between these scenarios for the individual.
      The article you reference is from 5 years ago – that’s ancient history and also we are allowed to see someone’s opinion and thoughts other than Om’s – much as I love reading his articles, it’s nice to have diverse takes on subject matter.

      1. If my reply is harsh, what about your use of the word “loathed” in the title? Where is the proof that email is loathed?

    2. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to declare that very few people who work in corporate environments love email. That’s a lot more than 5,000 people. You might want to read the UC Irvine study linked in the story for more information, particularly the section on stress levels.

  2. Thanks for the mention of Gander.io!

    In our short demo slot, we didn’t emphasize mobile but we’ve actually built it for power mobile users first. People who get > 100 emails a day, and have email checking OCD, we feel your pain!

    -David Wihl, CEO

  3. This is interesting, but its hard to believe that email will exist unless it changes radically. It is simply too much nonsense and too hard to operate. What I predict is that social communication will take over simply because it filters the noise, holds a record of conversations and is about connection, not address. I wrote about this here:

    http://successfulworkplace.com/2011/12/14/will-social-technology-kill-email-bpm-socialbpm-social/

    But it deserves an update. We use our own product at work and there are many, including the C-level, who can’t be reached any other way. That says something…

  4. Thank you for the info. I do loathe email. Can’t lie, I was hoping you would tell me I could now train my cat to manage my gmail account, this is the next best thing though :)

    Sam Parker
    http://www.Jobcast.net/blog

    1. That’s on the Trello board.

  5. I wouldn’t rate myself in the tech elite, but I both need to communicate asynchronously, and to have uninterrupted time where a phone call can wreck hours of creative thinking. Email suits that purpose admirably. Admittedly I use multiple email addresses.

  6. Why is there an inbox?
    What is broken, MTA, MDA, MUA?

    I think the thinking about email is broken in some closed circles of tech. The inbox is just a arbitrary consolidated organization, it should be context. Means for most people and organizations the problem is in MDA (should be MOA, Mail Organization Agent) and to a larger part MUA( should be distributed over context).

  7. Unroll.me (http://unroll.me) is a great tool for managing email.
    Simply enter your Gmail address and Unroll.me pulls up all of your subscriptions.
    You can unsubscribe from the emails that you don’t want, and place the rest in your Rollup.
    The Rollup combines all of your subscriptions into one daily digest.
    Extremely useful!

  8. “And then once you get beyond a person’s actual client, you have to consider their attitudes toward reading, sorting, deleting and filtering. Are you an Inbox Zero person? A let-it-all-pile-up person? Do you even know what archiving is? (Troy points out that many people don’t.) So this means that one person’s idea of an email solution dream might make absolutely no sense to someone else. Everyone has their own email habits, and engineers trying to innovate in the space need to understand the client’s habits, which isn’t easy.”

    Troy I believe U R missing the Big Picture here. People will always take the system they R GIVEN to work with and modify it to work as closely as possible with the way they think will best suite their way of working. Any New and BETTER ideas U innovate will be modified. So quit worrying about what people R doing with the old software and give them a better product, let the modifiers do whatever they want to make their work day better.

  9. What about Inky (www.inky.com)?

  10. Also check out this recap of the Inbox Love conference, highlighting exactly how big of an opportunity email is:

    www1.toutapp.com/blog/the-state-of-the-email-union

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