Once a time-saver, the inbox has become a burden. That’s why bold entrepreneurs stand to get rich fixing it, writes Business 2.0 columnist Om Malik.
(Business 2.0 Magazine) — E-mail, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! But it wasn’t always so. A lifetime ago, I signed up for CompuServe and received my first exposure to electronic messaging. My reaction: Cool. Now I don’t have to call people and leave voice-mail. Zapping information back and forth at the speed of light will be a big productivity boost.
How naive I was. E-mail became the Internet’s first killer app — and therein lies the problem. As software goes, e-mail is almost socialist: From each according to his ability, to each whether or not he needs it.
E-mail ought to be reinvented to meet the needs of our always-connected lives. Startups like Xobni are trying to make e-mail inboxes easier to handle, but they just don’t go far enough. What they’re doing is akin to giving a New York tenement building a makeover by putting on a new facade but not getting rid of the termites and roaches.
That means there’s still a mega-opportunity to reinvent the entire medium. How big? According to the Radicati Group, a market research firm, there are about 1.2 billion e-mail users and 1.8 billion active e-mail accounts worldwide. And in much of Asia and Latin America, Internet usage is still low. When those people show up in full force, e-mail traffic is going to increase exponentially.
And yet, e-mail sucks. If you’re like me, you spend hours of your valuable time separating the wheat from the chaff. My first cup of coffee is cold by the time I’ve even scanned my inbox. Some people, like venture capitalist Fred Wilson, have declared “e-mail bankruptcy”: the complete inability to keep up with messages, followed by mass deletion and a plea for legitimate correspondents to send new ones.
That even the most tech-savvy among us are unable to cope indicates an underlying problem: E-mail has become a crutch, a way of passing the buck. Want to make an appointment? That’s 10 messages back and forth. Then there are corporate updates, birthday announcements, forwarded jokes, and (if you’re me) the occasional amorous ditty.
Here’s where e-mail’s socialism turns from strength to weakness: It doesn’t matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11 a.m. In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal.
In reality, of course, some are more equal than others. Spam, alerts, and calendar items all need to be treated separately. A smart inbox would — all in one interface — catch spam in junk filters, display the wine reminder in an IM, move company news to an RSS feed, and intelligently negotiate appointment requests with your calendar in the background.
All these technologies exist — it’s just a matter of pulling them together. The payoff could be huge. If Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo aren’t up to the challenge, I’m sure one of you is brave enough to try. I’ll gladly be among the first to sign up for the beta test. Just don’t send me an e-mail about it.