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 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.
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 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.
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 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.