Email Is Broken. Can Anyone Fix It?
Let’s start this story at the end: You can’t kill email. Attempting to do so is a decades-long tradition of the tech industry, a cliché right up there with “Uber, but for” and “The Netflix of X.” AOL Instant Messenger tried to kill email. So did MySpace. Then Facebook took up the mantle, followed by Slack and Symphony and WhatsApp and HipChat. Through it all, email persists—always dying, never dead.
Except email isn’t dying. There are 3.7 billion users worldwide who collectively send 269 billion emails every day, according to a report by The Radicati Group. Email is bigger than Facebook. Hell, it’s bigger than the internet.
That’s good news, in some ways. Unlike nearly all its competitors, email is an open standard, not subject to the whims of a single company or person. Nobody owns the SMTP protocol you use to send email, or the POP and IMAP standards used to check it. At this point, no one could even really try; nobody’s going to use a new email client that can’t send messages to Yahoo addresses because the tech isn’t compatible. Lots of people still have Yahoo addresses, too, because their email is an identity just as important as a phone number or home address. We get receipts, bills, and confirmation numbers sent to our email. An email address validates its user, the domain proving you really work where you claim. Not everybody snaps, or WhatsApps, or even texts, but everybody emails. The system is too diverse and too broad for anyone to control it. Which is mostly a good thing.
The more interesting question than whether email’s heading to the great IMAP server in the sky, is why everyone’s so eager for it to get there. Email’s been part of our computing lives for more than four decades; it’s the most reliable, most universal communication method yet devised online. And as an idea, email has everything going for it: It’s free and easy to start using, everyone understands what it is, and it offers a way to reach absolutely anyone.
The underlying tech behind email has its challenges, of course. Since things like SMTP and IMAP are so widespread, they’re difficult to update. Email is riddled with security problems, because it’s only as good as the weakest link in the entire system. Spam’s still a mess. But developers say that in general, the infrastructure is fine. And so, while Facebook and Signal and Slack try to usurp email, the folks who run Gmail, Outlook, and some exciting startups are all working on ways to make email work. They’re building a future where your email doesn’t overwhelm you, but helps you get stuff done—and does some of that stuff for you. They’re all betting on the same thesis: The problem isn’t email. It’s our relationship to email that’s broken. And that can be fixed.
If you’d like to blame someone for the mess inside your email app, Rahul Vohra would be a good place to start. In 2010, Vohra created Rapportive, a browser extension that displays useful information about your contacts alongside their emails. It was hugely successful, which turned out well for Vohra (he sold Rapportive to LinkedIn in 2012) but terribly for your inbox. Lots of other extensions cropped up, angling for space next to your messages. “It takes this Gmail experience that’s already kind of showing its age—it’s old, it’s slow, it leaks memory, it’s not efficient, it doesn’t work offline—and makes every single one worse,” Vohra says.
A couple of years ago, after leaving LinkedIn, Vohra found he couldn’t stop thinking about how to fix email. He started a company called Superhuman to answer a specific question: What would Gmail look like if you built it from scratch in 2017? Vohra and his team imagined the fastest email client ever, which would work equally well online and off, on phones and on desktops. It would be easy to understand, yet so wildly powerful you might never discover all its features. Most important of all, it would be beautiful.
Superhuman doesn’t try to keep you out of your inbox or stem the tide of emails. It aims instead to turn users into email-conquering supermachines. Even on the desktop, it’s designed as a full-screen experience because for Superhuman’s intended user, email isn’t a thing you do while you work. Email is work. Vohra talks often about “flow state,” the elusive psychological phenomenon of complete immersion in a task, and explains how email should be optimized for flow. He says the app is full of small, helpful tricks to make things faster: you can copy and paste an entire email into a new draft with two keystrokes, or search your entire archive in a tenth of a second. There are few menus or sidebars, only inboxes and messages.
For most people, though, Superhuman screams overkill. It’s a gorgeous piece of reclaimed wood and a tablesaw, when you might rather just assemble the Ikea pieces. For most users, especially the billions of new internet users signing up for their very first email address, the only way to make email better is to help people use it less. There are people working on that, too.
First Things First
When Mikael Berner and Hetal Pandya started building an app they now call Edison (formerly EasilyDo), they weren’t really trying to reinvent email. They were more interested in building an assistant that could smartly and automatically manage your contacts, calendar, trips, bills, and photos. Email just happened to be the best source of all that data. Users wouldn’t have to input anything—just let the system comb through what you’re sending and receiving. They built a full-on email client only after realizing that was a perfect place for people to interact with Edison’s AI.
If you want to scroll through your inbox in Edison the old-fashioned way, you can. Lots of people do, Berner says. After decades of using email a certain way, users have a hard time changing the way they do it. But if you let it, Edison can do most of the heavy lifting for you. It’ll grab the most important messages, shoving them to the top of the list to make sure you respond. It’ll unsubscribe to junk mail with a single tap. It’ll sort all your vacation-related messages into a handy timeline, and alert you if anything changes. “People love it,” Pandya says. “They don’t even realize how it’s working, but it’s a convenience that is amazing.”
Lots of people building email products believe, like Edison, that the future of email isn’t really about communication. The signs are obvious, actually. A massive percentage of emails give themselves away: They’re sent from the no-reply@ addresses you see at the top of receipts and coupons. Rather, email’s job is to be a repository for all possible information about you. “We use Slack, we use Messenger, but everything we do in our lives comes into our inboxes,” says Arlo Rose, who spearheaded the Alto email project for AOL, which is now part of Oath. “Whether it’s going to the Apple Store on the corner, or Bloomingdales at the mall, it all ends up as a digital receipt or a flight confirmation or something else in our inbox. We just have piles and piles and piles of the stuff.”
Rose says his data shows more than 85 percent of all email fits this category, which he calls “transactional mail.” That number is growing. And it’s changing the way even the largest email providers think about their jobs.
Over the last decade or so, the rise in smartphones turned email into a primarily mobile experience, but the rules of engagement never caught up. You’d never sign your name to a text message—so why do it in an email? So much email correspondence involves scheduling or questions, and a lot of conversational fluff just slows down the process. Writing a text message rarely feels taxing, but every email feels like a huge cognitive load.
It doesn’t help that every email also feels like a ticking time bomb, waiting for your response before some unknown too-late time when everything explodes. Since you can check your email anytime and anywhere, you’re expected to be tethered to it always and everywhere. You might turn off notifications, but a rapidly filling inbox exerts an ineffable pull on your attention. Boomerang, another browser extension for email, brute-forces the situation with a feature called Inbox Pause, which only drops messages into your inbox a few times a day. But in a nod to the way things sadly are, Inbox Pause encourages you to turn on an auto-responder saying you won’t get this email for a few hours.
The brutal truth seems to be that the only way to fix email is to fix our insecurity, neediness, and faux sense of urgency. Which seems unlikely. All developers can do in the meantime is try and help you climb the email mountain a little more easily. That’s what Jacob Bank, a hyper-energetic Googler, spends his time thinking about. Gmail’s now the dominant email provider—it has 1.2 billion users, and is growing rapidly while all its competitors shrink—which means it has the power to set standards, define norms, and change the way people email. All of which Bank intends to do.
Bank likes email’s ability to scale from short messages to long, and from quick-fire conversations to the sorts that unfold over months and years. He appreciates email’s organizational tools, its searchability, its prioritization options. But making all that work in one place can be tricky. “Sometimes I want to send you a ping and I want you to respond right away,” Bank says. “But sometimes I actually want to be respectful of your time and give you the day or the week to respond.” The Gmail team has worked hard to enable long, rich, multimedia email. That works fine. The harder problem concerns the rest.
Maybe, Bank theorizes, every message should be treated differently. For example, if you get an email from Delta, “we gave a lot of freedom to optimize the UI for finding your boarding pass,” he says. Same with all the transactional stuff—if an email comes from a no-reply@ address, why even have a reply window? “And then if you send me a one line email with a question mark at the end, I’m probably going to reply,” Bank says. Gmail has an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the content and context of every email you get, so it could cater the experience to each one. It could even help you respond, with a feature like Smart Reply, which suggests three short answers to every message. “Now, can we do this in a way that retains all your muscle memory, and works elegantly across all those [possibilities]?” Bank asks. “That’s our challenge.”
The email ecosystem is too big and distributed for anyone to force users to change. There are cultural differences, generational differences, and a huge corpus of users with long-standing ideas about how things work. But these providers can subtly nudge users in the right direction. Another example: you’ll notice that in a long thread of messages, Gmail will move all the signatures down to the very bottom of the thread, essentially yanking them out of the conversation. Which is great, because email signatures are ridiculous. (Especially the ones with logo images.)
If Gmail, or Outlook, or someone else can put all these pieces together, email could be in for a turnaround. All the necessary data is sitting right there in your inbox, and companies across the world are working furiously to figure out how to comb through it all and tell you what to do with it. You should root for email to work, because it’s the only open, free, universal communications tool we have left. And like it or not, you’re stuck with it.
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