The State of Personal E-mail: Frakked

“You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.

-- Albert Einstein

E-mail on any kind on any platform in any era has always been problematic. There are basic communication protocols and ports, like POP, IMAP and SSL. But when it comes to user specific implementations and business models, e-mail has been on a roller coaster ride. Now, Google is trying to re-invent e-mail with Wave by, possibly, asking the wrong question. What are the right questions?

The state of e-mail is not good. When e-mail was the killer app in the 1990s, there were many fine e-mail apps for the Mac. They cost real money and were supported. While fairly simple and limited, they got the job done in an era of dial-up connections.

Then, when Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) shipped, Apple included its own e-mail application that literally torpedoed the for-pay apps like Eudora and PowerMail. With their business model blown up by Apple, Qualcomm passed on Eudora 7, a Mac OS X native version, leaving it up to others to limp along *.

Enterprise E-mail

All along the way, business e-mail, on expensive broadband networks took its own path. Microsoft's Outlook, with extensive support for business needs, such as receipts proving the recipient read an e-mail, came to dominate the business world.

Emerging after that, but not yet solidified, is the Web 2.0 concept of Web-based e-mail for corporate users. The best example of that is Zimbra. Zimbra, developed by people who researched and well understood the problems with modern e-mail, is used widely in circles that are allergic to Microsoft. Zimbra provides the kind of collaboration and automation one would expect -- including scheduling of calendar items, shared files, contact lists. archiving. It's a complete solution, as is Outlook + Exchange, for businesses willing to sign on to the whole solution suite and pay for it.

What's Left for Me?

For the individual or small business, things aren't so great. Free e-mail apps are grudgingly used, but one gets what one pays for. For example, in the case of Apple's, instead of addressing the fundamental issues of e-mail handling, Apple has rather haphazardly "improved" the app by adding ToDo lists and RSS feeds. Then it turned around and gave an Apple Design Award to Things -- a tacit admission of its failure with the development philosophy.

As a result of this, the modern kinds of things that we'd like to do with e-mail remain out of reach. For sure, you can send a special invitation to another Mac user with the that will drop a calendar entry into iCal. But that depends on both users using Apple's

Fundamental Questions

In recognition of of the fragmentation of the e-mail user interfaces and technologies, and maybe a little bit of salt in the wounds of Microsoft, Google has asked themselves the question: "What would e-mail be like if it were invented today?" And came up with Google Wave. However, asking that question isn't the same as asking a much more complex series of questions:

  • How do individuals use e-mail in 2009? For example, some people only read their e-mail once a day, others every five minutes.
  • What are the fundamental issues that aren't being addressed by free apps?
  • Is e-mail really dying thanks to Twitter? Or is that a delusion because users are unhappy with the state-of-the-art in e-mail?
  • How can we bring the advantages of Zimbra to the personal desktop and remain competitive?
  • What kind of e-mail would be so compelling that people would actually pay for it? Or is there a modern business model that keeps the app free but pays on the back end?

Google's Wave approaches the issue in a social media way: "How can I engage with my friends in a persistent connection to exchange ideas and information?" That may be the way 25 year old Google engineers work, frenetically time-sharing, but it doesn't solve the fundamental issues of 21st century e-mail; it just brushes them under the rug. Google Wave is still too immature and has to small a market penetration to become the near-term answer for Jim and Mary, in their 30s, in Albuquerque who run a small gift shop.

One would hope that the company responsible for blowing up the paid personal e-mail app business, Apple, would pour the same level of creative thinking into its as Google is pouring into Wave. Regrettably, with each new version of Mac OS X, we get only minor and irrelevant refinements that are disappointing. That's because Apple has no motivation or industry expertise to envision what a remake of the e-mail experience could be. They're happy to limp along, as they did with iCal. Apple is asleep at the wheel on this.

The Next Generation E-mail App

When one looks at what BusyCal did for calendaring, essentially embarrassing Apple's iCal, one suspects that somewhere, someplace, someone can figure out how to make money with an insanely great concept for 21st century desktop e-mail. As it is, we're stuck with, Thunderbird, Mailsmith, MailForge and Opera.

The whole technology of e-mail is ingrained in our culture. It's private, even encrypted. It's read on our own schedule. It's not in your face, but allows us to move away as needed and be creative, in quiet time, with other tools. It can handle large amounts of text and attachments. Messages are ignorable and filterable.

I believe there is still time for developers to exploit these features of the e-mail experience and yet make dramatic improvements in handling, sorting, prioritizing, calendaring and the UI. An inbox with 2,000 messages leaves one with the same bad taste in the mouth as when we see an Macintosh novice who uses the desktop as his one and only filing cabinet.

Google Wave is the right answer to the wrong question. Maybe Apple itself is our only hope.


* Here's a full list of free mail apps for the Mac.