How the Email Inbox Can Become An App Platform

Google recently opened the floodgates for business services to integrate with its Google Apps platform — enabling them to get broader distribution and offer single sign-on integrated services within Google’s corporate hub. One aspect of the announcement flew under the radar: Google’s future plan to allow apps to embed themselves directly into email messages. Google calls this “Gmail Contextual Gadgets,” and promises a limited group of tester developers will get access “soon.” That previews a future where email is rich, dynamic and integrated with services across the web — AKA an app platform. The implications could be pretty huge.

YouTube embedded in Gmail

Google has already enabled similar functionality for some of its own services within its free consumer Gmail product. So when someone sends a Gmail user a YouTube URL, they see an embedded video rather than just a link. Imagine if the same thing could be true for other services. The email message itself becomes a mini browser window rather than a static block of text and images.

Instead of getting another annoying reminder to click through to RSVP to an Evite, the email could pop to the top of your inbox, load time-sensitive information dynamically, and allow you to respond directly without opening another page. Instead of getting piles of separate alerts from Facebook alerting you additional comments on some random post, you could load up the site right there in the frame of a message and respond.

That vision of an inbox that actually makes sense of Evite and Facebook isn’t what Google is after — yet. This is less about making email social and more about making corporate email rich and dynamic. Contextual Gadgets will be available for only “business-related” developers and only for users of the Google Apps product, said a Google spokesperson.

This isn’t a new concept. Om titled a post in 2007, “Is Email the Ultimate Social Environment?” after meeting Xoopit and Xobni, which added things like context and better photo viewing to email, respectively. Back in the bubble era, a company called Zaplets that made “email a platform for interactive applications” raised more than $100 million. Xobni later acquired the Zaplets IP. (Xoopit was later bought by Yahoo for about $20 million and now it’s a widget within Yahoo Mail.)

Xobni sidebar in Outlook

Google going to business users first “is not a mistake,” said Xobni founder Matt Brezina in a phone interview. “Context becomes really important inside the enterprise.” Xobni has been long an Outlook-only product, a little piece of software that runs as a sidebar inside Outlook with a bit of Internet Explorer to bring in contextual information about email contacts and trends from the web. (It recently added support for the BlackBerry.)

Brezina’s justification: “Outlook has 500 to 600 million users who haven’t seen much innovation but have a lot of engagement. Those people’s time is worth a lot of money.” So it makes sense that Google, which is facing off against Microsoft’s business suite, would want to go for that market first.

Startups like Gist, Rapportive and Etacts are taking the same business-centered approach, with their context-for-email products falling into the category of “social CRM.”

Appirio PS Connect in Google Apps

One company that’s already been able to play around with Gmail Contextual Gadgets is Appirio, which built a demo that shows how you can manage employees and customers with a solution built on Salesforce’s cloud platform. Watch the screencast here.

It basically looks like a live attachment appended within the body of an email. (The Google spokesperson said that if developers want to learn more they should come to an instructional session on Contextual Gadgets at Google I/O in May.)

I know, I know…do we really need another app platform? With every last square inch of turf declared to be a platform, the appstorification of technology inspired by Facebook and Apple is almost complete. But email still deserves to join the party.

Still, this isn’t wide open space. Email will be a bit tricky to innovate around, given how dependent and immersed we are in it. For instance, messing with linear, chronologically ordered messages in order to bring relevant ones to the fore might do more harm than good. Making messages contain dynamic information might confuse our dependable search and foldering habits for organizing information. But I’d be happy to have an inbox that understands and integrates the world around it.

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