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Why Email Clients Need to Change

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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.

97 Responses to “Why Email Clients Need to Change”

  1. Great insights. The way we use email is evolving -has evolved – and the big players out there – outlook, thunderbird, even gmail – haven’t quite figured out how to grow with us.
    Rather than deal with a lot of small apps/plug-ins, I think Postbox – new client based on Thunderbird – offers the right kind of holistic solution – with search for example, tagging, and multiple mailbox management. I’ve been using it for at least 7 months and it’s been doing well keeping up with my business/life.

  2. Gerry Novak

    And my e-mail Magazine subscriptions should all be saved to a seperate PST/offline file. When I search my emails for Symantec, I want to ONLY find correspondance to/from them, NOT every article that mentions them. (I have a rule in outlook that does this now, but only after years of frustration of keeping ALL of my old e-mails in the same file, making a nightmare of searching for things like Symantec +License +Key)

  3. I love all of your ideas for the perfect email client, but man I hope it looks and acts nothing like Gmail. I can’t stand Gmail. I refuse to use it unless forced by the need to share a Google Doc or some such and forward all mail OUT of it to Thunderbird.

  4. Alistair,

    Your breakdown of activity offers great insight. You should take a look at NutshellMail to help remove your Twitter and Facebook notification clutter. With NutshellMail, you can disable your one-off notifications and instead receive consolidated updates of all your activity on a schedule you choose. I get my updates every three hours and they provide a snapshot of all my Twitter activity, including new followers, quitters, direct messages, @replies, (search term tracking coming soon). The best part is that NutshellMail lets you update your status, send dms, retweets, replies as well as follow and unfollow commands via email. The Facebook feature updates you on new messages, friend requests, birthdays, invites and status updates from your friends. It also lets you update your status via email and will soon enable you to reply to friends comments via email.

    NutshellMail is free and you can learn more at

    I am one of the co-founders and would be happy to answer any questions you may have.


  5. Hi, I am working on this research with Alistair at Bitcurrent.

    Great to see that there are so many tools out there already working on this problem.

    We’re looking at doing a round-up post of the space including all the services & tools we’ve found already as well as those in these comments – GTDInbox, Postbox, cc.betty, OtherInbox, Mail Trends, Xobni, Xoopit are the ones in the list so far.

    If there are any more we’ve missed, or you can point us to demos or other materials that would be helpful, please let me know, alex at bitcurrent dot com.

    @Sarvesh we’d be interested in looking at frothmail but can’t find your contact details. Please get in touch.


  6. Love the CRM aspect. Your personal CRM.

    I use Outlook just because of this. It has a small business extension, the business contact manager. Fixes some of what you mention, but not all and definitely not convenient. And, being a MSFT tool, it crashes regularly. But at least it recovers without problems ;-)).

    I have a plugin for facebook and twitter, this is quite helpful too, and I call several mail accounts across the web, without being concerned about privacy issues. I even have a backup of the most important mails, quite helpful I think.

    So, that’s a so-so tool with some nice features, but I would love to see more, especially more of the pay / bill stuff you mention, more convenience and more integration of ‘social net’ activities, like mentioned here, where I ask for a new communication platform: .

    • I like top posting. Gmail hides the quoted text anyway, regardless if it’s above or below the message, and I can easily review the whole conversation if I need to. It also reformats HTML mail a bit to make it more readable.

      If your point is to force people into quoting and formatting email as _you_ like it, keep dreaming :) Although I had the same complaints as you do before I started using Gmail.

    • “Identity 2.0” is a perfect way to put it, though “Identity 1.0” has yet to come out of beta–to wit: lifestreaming services like, Retaggr, and so on.

      Given the depth and breadth of this discussion, there are obvious needs here waiting to be filled. An entrpreneur would be wise to take this entire discussion (including the original post, of course) as a feature list for a new application.

  7. Good article, the aggregation I do mainly by Google Reader. Maybe Google should integrate Reader and Gmail somehow. I don’t want my Twitter notifications and other social web messages in my inbox. It get’s cluttered with notes which content no more than a tiitle saying: “X is doing something at spot Y”! Those messages can be best read in an aggregate.

    • @jonands73 Doesn’t that depend on how you want to use the web? If you’re happy to go to multiple places: your e-mail inbox, your Twitter page, your Facebook inbox, your RSS reader (we can now add to this list your OtherInbox inbox) and so on, then sure, you may not need notifications..

      But if your e-mail is the one thing you check regularly wouldn’t it be nice to have it as your communications central – the only place you have to check for all your communications? I think that is why some people prefer to use notifications. The problem Alistair was talking about is not “I have too many notifications” but rather that the notifications that come in, which we do need in this usage, comes in as if it were *just another e-mail*, whereas it needs special treatment.

      @andreas.wpv explained the idea of a communications central very clearly in his post

  8. @Brett — you nailed it. Filters just move your flood of messages into other buckets; they don’t help you visualize it cleverly. For example, I get monthly bills from several SaaS services like Basecamp; I get one-time bills from godaddy for DNS registration; and I get annual renewals from Flickr. I’d like to see all of this data in a “spend report” similar to what something like Mint has. On the other hand, I get a bunch of travel mails for car, train, plane, and hotel bookings; I’d like to see those in one place. And I’d love a directory of every website I’ve ever signed up to, with the last time I refreshed my password.

    That’s the new inbox: Automatically filtering (perhaps with the help of crowds as @kdawg suggests), then analyzing and visualizing each class of data in a way that makes sense.

    Today, this may be a problem only a small slice of the world faces. And as @Scott points out, very little of our personal mail is “personal mail” (awesome graphic!) There’s no guarantee this will come from an email client — it could just as easily be a Tweetdeck or Seesmic Desktop, and it may indeed speak protocols beyond email.

  9. My inbox is a mess, too. Xobni helps with that a lot (thanks, Matt). But the next version of Outlook needs to de-couple tasks, contacts and calendars from email, not provide greater convergence. Users should have very light, and fast access to their non-message-related content. If you have thousands of messages in Outlook, and for me that means just keeping 90 days worth of must-save business mail in there with the older messages stripped out and saved elsewhere by Tech-Hit’s Message Save Add-in, then accessing the non-communication function tools becomes a real issue. Further convergence of programs would only make matters worse.

    The next version of Outlook needs to be email-centric, much in the manner that Postbox ( handles it. Sure, it needs to have links to email addresses in from user contacts, but if I’m sending an email, why should the program be hamstrung by integration with phone numbers, addresses, notes, tasks, etc. Maybe there can be a browser-based overview you can access by linked buttons from within each of the separate programs, but Microsoft needs to break email free from the other functions; they cause too much bloat. It also needs to get away from dependence on complex folder structures by adding tagging and auto-tagging functions, (not just categories). The Tagging function in FireFox is a great example of what I’d like to see. Maybe the way Microsoft can accomplish all this is through a “lite” version of Exchange that works the way SQL Express does. I suppose PST and OST files were fine from 1995 to about 2003, but they’re just the wrong way for crucial data to be stored in 2009 and going forward.

    Microsoft needs to re-think what Outlook does from the bottom up. As it stands, the program is a mess, but it’s the only program I can realistically use for business mail.

    • I hate to be a fanboy, but Gmail is as fast with 2 GB of mail (9k messages) as it was the day I registered for it, it’s quite simple, has a bit of unobtrusive GCalendar and GDocs integration, keyboard shortcuts, and tags.

      • GMail is not a professional platform. Period. It’s a non-starter for a lot of businesses. I know it’s shiny. I sync my Outlook Calendar to GCal. I run my Google reader through Feedly. But I don’t send anything to a client using GMail. Ever. It runs against everything else I do to build my brand. If someone I’m thinking about subcontracting with sends me a message from a GMail address, I take him/her a bit less seriously.

      • I like gmail too. The reason I switched was searching in Outlook is painfully slow sometimes, and it’s blazing fast in gmail. I can search 8800 messages saved over 12 years in seconds with gmail.

        @Bob Finch – are you just complaining about the domain name in the email address? I use Google Apps for your Domain and everyone sees the same vanity domain email address that I’ve been using for 15 years. I use it for my consulting business too with it’s own domain name. And it’s free for up to 25 users. I’ll never go back to running my own email server for a small shop.

  10. Filters? I think their proponents are missing the point. Sure, I can filter everything and put it in a nice hierarchy of folders. Or, I can leave everything in a single dropbox and continually search against it.
    But, either way, your information is still in a specific format: unstructured text in a folder. What you want is an integrated environment where unstructured text becomes structured, useful, tagged information. Emails populate contact lists, personal/business CRM applications; site registrations become links in a browser launch page; email site notifications get timelined; etc.
    I don’t think there’s a need to wait for some insanely clever script to automate the task though – I think there’s a need for putting this tagging, sorting, and structuring functionality into existing packages.

      • Sorry, I was too quick. There is the occasional ‘hi, how are’ email from a friend. I would classify this as ‘relationship mail’ which the recipient has to read in order to maintain/enhance human relationships.

        How many of those do you get? For me, it’s very, very few.

  11. A lot of good points. I have to set up filters for practically everything (I use Eudora) just to stay sane, and it’s still a lot of monkeying around to make sense of it all.

  12. We have quite a few of the features you are looking for, we are gonna do a private beta release in two weeks. If you would like to try it out,, drop me an email. If you don’t mind not having IMAP support for two weeks you can try it out now with email forwarding.