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Notes for “Email: The Next Frontier”

Abstract: Email is at the center of everything we do online. Even the most popular new social communications ride the back that is email. It is in fact the killer app of the Internet, and has been for some 40 years. It is however, a love-hate relationship. But there’s good news. Innovcation is finally coming to email in the form of mashups, plugins and other tools, to help carve out value propositions for everyday email civilians.

Panel: Moderator: Molly Wood from Cnet; Bassam Khan, product manager @ Cisco for Inbox; Michael Cerda, cofounder of Threadbox (formerly cc:Betty); Mark Risher, product manager for Yahoo Mail; TA McCann, from Gist

Notes:

  • Wood – when first received email about panel – really?
    • Received email about panel, about ticket itinerary, about hotel, about events, etc.
    • Email is something that needs to be talked about since we use it all the time
    • How can we fix email?
  • Khan – how are we improving upon the basic email service
    • We cannot disrupt email services to large corporations, so everything has to be built on top
    • Connecting email into social tools
  • Cerda – email is most fundamental method of communication for groups, but it is a mess
  • Risher – Yahoo Mail has 325MM users – their demographic is the entire web
    • How can we take this into a world with more messages and more ways people communicate?
    • Email, IM, SMS, Twitter, Facebook
  • McCann – how many people have >100 unread emails? (Lots of people.)
    • How to connect these things in one place? Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.
  • Wood – we have four different approaches to how to fix email – what’s wrong with email in the first place?
    • McCann – problems:
      • Multiple inboxes (even across services) – one of those is usually more important, but all are important in some way
      • All inboxes are reverse-chronological – remove dates and move to people?
      • People have tried in every application to create filters, but these filters often aren’t good or aren’t dynamic
    • Risher – not sure email is broken – rumors of the death or email are exaggerated – email is the base prerequisite for signing up for just about every service; email is still the best way for directed, “one-to-few” communications
      • Email has reasonable expectation of response and is easily stored
      • By being so simple, email begins to grow – you get more and more and more over time
      • How can email messages do more? More than just a flat piece of text that was precise and goes out of date? Can we let email become “alive” and change over time?
    • Cerda – When sending an email, then between forwards and replies, the system doesn’t let you know the status of a communication; what do I really need to know, and who said what when?
      • I need to know stuff, but I need to know that they know stuff, too
      • The notion of being able to collapse disparate emails across multiple inboxes into a shared common view
    • Khan – Email is not really broken, but off its target of what it was designed to do
      • Some people send more, some people send less, some people file everything, some people file nothing – there are lots of people on the spectrum
      • Email has become more of a stream than a series of documents
      • Email is designed for fewer emails and strict filing, while contemporary usage is the opposite
  • Wood – are we trying to solve a problem that might be fixed by usage or search?
    • Risher – don’t view it as a strict evolution; it is more of a personality type – there are nuanced ways out there that let people do this
      • Example – automatic organization that helps you sort emails based on context, size, or recipient
      • The evolution is needing more sophisticated ways to looking through your inbox
    • Cerda – once, broadband was all about speed, but now it’s plumbing; email is the same way now – it’s the common denominator
      • It’s all about use cases – we build value-added services on top of email like the web is over broadband
    • McCann – it’s all about how you use it – some people make very convoluted and complicated filters and rules in order to filter their email efficiently
      • Certain people have super-rich information diets and they have to figure out ways to handle it, but it snowballs into more connections and more communication over time
    • Khan – we are all spending our day in different parts of the email spectrum over a day – the inbox is a reference place that you go back to to find information on a project
      • It’s hard to go in and say that you can search for everything on a single discussion or single topic – there is no organization to this
    • McCann – there is inbox zero, but there is no activity stream zero – this is a different way of receiving communications
  • Wood – are we collapsing things into one stream? This didn’t work well for Google Buzz – is the inbox fundamentally different from the activity stream?
    • Risher – there is clearly a user perception around it – there are clearly ways for people to organize these things; the direction is not to emulate Bill Gates’ 19k email rules, but that a user should not have to think about this
      • How can we do this on behalf of the user?
      • Merging all the different lists is a big task
  • Wood – this evolved – from inbox to personal behavior to the idea of collaboration and threading – does email have to evolve into a realtime tool?
    • Cerda – there is no presence in email; when you send one, you have no idea where it’s gone; if we can combine these things into the context of discussions, when it’s real-time, it’s great
    • Risher – interesting part of this – there are different expectations with different methods of communication – there is no concept of newsfeed zero because it just scrolls away and doesn’t have the weight of numbers
      • Problem with Buzz was taking information that was somewhat relevant and weaving it into your email, where you feel guilty if you don’t get to every last one
      • When you have different places that you look for things, a master list of things you look at sets unrealistic expectations
      • If you know I’m online, do I have to write back to you?
    • Khan – the inbox is a hub to get to multiple places – streams, RSS feed, Wiki discussions, blogs, etc.; to recreate this in email doesn’t make sense
    • McCann – threading accomplishes at least organizing things into groups – let’s get into a database method of thinking to get from point to point as my tasks are dictated
    • Risher – the relational aspect is interesting, because we see that as multi-modal conversations; email to IM to Facebook messaging, or whatever; how to put together everything done over these channels
    • Khan – there’s so much information in the inbox that hasn’t been shared that should have been or should be – not enough sharing
  • Wood – not just talking about multi-modal communication or multi-platform – what about mobile, where you are more task oriented?
    • McCann – you probably want more context-sensitive information when in that mode
  • Wood – let’s talk about mobile – these are complex scenarios; how do you take this on the road?
    • Khan – it really is the relevant data at the relevant time over the relevant medium; basically (broken down into topic) – there is a good chance you are not going to do deep research on a mobile device
      • Tying email conversations and other things into SMS as an example – mobile is a way of looking at the consolidated inbox
  • Wood – does real-time work better on mobile?
    • Cerda – Tracking bugs in real-time – able to see a digest just in email and respond to the situation right there; it’s not real-time, really, but mobile is just another node
    • Risher – this is a very important thing – the mobile version of a communications site is usually the “light” one – your needs on a mobile device are sometimes more complicated or more advanced – you are constrained on the UI – you need more sophisticated tools to remove the user overhead
  • Wood – opening this up for questions at this point
  • Wood – talked about filtering; there are multiple types of messaging just within email – why aren’t we there yet? Why is it so hard to have better filtering?
    • Risher – one challenge is that the definition here evolves over time – by time, like over a single day; to what degree do you infer the needs of the user in relevancy ranking and other tools?
    • McCann – we are missing the point and getting to an approach that it’s all about filtering the messages in different ways – smart filtering is more context-sensitive – I’m conversing with a person now; why don’t I have all the related stuff right now?
      • The user shouldn’t have to ask a lot of questions
      • Importance from one person to another means a lot
    • Cerda – all that stuff is so in the weeds for most people that they will never figure it out
    • Risher – One of the issues with Buzz is realizing that there are facets – I may not want to see a person’s Twitter stream while I am emailing them – example: do we want the personal and the professional blurred?
    • Khan – every email is flat; there are three ways to fix
      • Automated sorting
      • Things you can do to your own inbox to make it more manageable
      • Someone else does it and you are part of the discussion as well – you benefit from their work and vice versa
  • Wood – part of the reason this is not solved is that people have different use cases – McCann is talking about the opposite of Inbox Zero
    • Khan – nothing here is either-or; Cisco’s solution is for business, not personal; must be comfortable for the average email user and not disruptive on the IT side
      • There are a ton of ways to innovate around email even with these distinctions
  • Wood – not about one solution, but making email meet the needs of different people – will we see the distinction between email and IM disappear?
    • McCann – there’s no “fix,” but we are trying to just improve communication; can I communicate more effectively with more people, or deeper with some versus others?
    • Risher – there are times when you need to break down the communications medium in order to serve the user properly
    • Khan – this goes to multi-modal; hard to share with a team easily – need to share IM and other forms of communication
    • Risher – there are drastically different features across all these methods of communication – we need feature parity across these things
  • Wood – what about the suppression of privacy – from Google Buzz, there was a surprising number of people who saw email as the last frontier of privacy
    • McCann – both Facebook and Google did this poorly; a lot of other things (other than email) are more passive; as we move into more public communication, like the @reply, more people are in on the conversation
    • Cerda – when trialing, people asked to share these things with Facebook, and some people did so without knowing what they were doing; this was removed
    • Khan – the hardest thing in dealing with making email more useful is privacy – a lot of the next-generation tools are designed to be shared
  • Audience Q: Which will impact email more: Google Wave or Facebook?
    • Cerda – Google Wave doesn’t even work; it’s Facebook because everyone is migrating there
    • Rishe – there is a lot of potential with Facebook, but also a lot of risk; right now a newsfeed is fairly public and people understand this; would receiving your credit card statement in your Facebook messaging gel nicely with current expectations? There is a transition to come
    • Khan – neither will replace email, but these things will play nicely with email
    • McCann – this is a massive opportunity for change; Facebook is grafting an old method of communication onto a newer service
  • Wood – will we still have email addresses in the future, or just have profiles?
  • Audience Q: When talking about things like Wave, it’s not a web application, it’s a new protocol – Wave represents a departure from what email normally is in terms of messaging – what would it mean to build your own messaging solutions on the Wave protocol?
    • McCann – we’ve already prototyped this; this is exciting for anyone who is building a new platform
    • Khan – it’s XMPP and Cisco is a strong supported of XMPP as a key part of Inbox as well
    • Cerda – Threadbox is built on XMPP as well – will it end up in Wave at some point? Maybe
  • Audience Q: What doesn’t belong in email?
    • Risher – if you have just taken a picture of something and want to distribute it to everyone, the broadcast of Facebook is much better than email
    • McCann – email is not a very good way to collaborate in a group
    • Khan – most communication that’s relevant to you should have some information visible to you via email; email is the portal to a lot of data not being cloned into the email environment itself
  • Audience Q: Reputation and trustworthiness – you see an email thread forwarded to other people – are those people trustworthy? How will email evolve to remedy that and help you gauge your level of attention and level of trust?
    • Risher – bringing more social and the profile into the email platform – share more information about the recipient
    • McCann – like to see good companies copying other good companies – you want the big view of a person’s content to help you decide on them and what they are about
    • Cerda – providing objects to attach to emails, like tasks will help
    • Khan – in corporate mail, this is trickier – in first prototype, there was a star system to help decide how relevant an email was – had to remove because people were down-rating things and it would get back to the sender
  • Audience Q: Two issues – email is not centralized and is hard to expand or include new features; because conversation is not public, people as a community can not bring in new features (e.g., Twitter had new user-created features because it was public) – is there a way to bring in new something into email in its core rather than just through clients and new services?
    • Risher – there is definitely a capability here; the email protocol is simple and there are ways to layer on top of it
  • Audience Q: Buzz vs. Wave; Buzz picked up adoption, but Wave didn’t – what’s the effectiveness of building a new system rather than building into an old one?
    • Cerda – it’s important to be agnostic when you are building new services
    • McCann – you must integrate one form into the existing form; it’s a question of where you draw the line
    • Risher – it’s important to think about how you interact with the customer and how you explain the service to them with regards to email
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