Email is the most broken technology that you use everyday

Email is the most broken technology that you use everyday

Summary: Seriously, does anyone actually find email to be usable?

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TOPICS: Mobility
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Broken email
Email. It's really broken.

I've been struggling to think of a technology that we all use that is more broken than email.

I can't think of one. Email is the pinnacle of broken yet-we-all-need-it-every-single-day technology.

It seems to me that all the other stuff we use has been nicely evolving away, new cool little things popping up now and again that are genuinely useful and that move the story on. Yet email hasn't changed in a decade.

Help

I remember a time when I loved email. I used to sit in Outlook all day and just do nothing but email. It was great. I was like a productivity machine.

But now all my email has become to me is little more than a stream of notifications delivered in the most useless way possible. I've honestly got into the position where every morning I wake up, go through my emails on my iPad, flag any that I need to do something with, and just mark everything else as read.

Thus every morning I start my day at "inbox zero", but not a good "I'm actually on top of this!" type inbox zero. My inbox zero whiffs of failure.

(And if you're wondering, yes, I do miss a good number of emails that I then have to go and find in a "why didn't such-and-such reply" moment.)

I'm pretty good with winning against spam. Only a small percentage is proper spam. A good proportion of stuff that I've ended up getting because I was signing up for something else. Case in point, I just received an email from Tesco. I bought a Hudl tablet and signed up with Tesco to activate the Hudl.

If I click on the "unsubscribe" link on that new Tesco quasi-spam, I have to go and log in to "change my preferences", which I can't be bothered to do. Even if I did, it "takes five working days to remove my email address". That's two bits of shoddy practice there. Shame on you, Tesco.

Most of the email I get is just the incoming onslaught of notifications from my digital life — various automated and semi-automated process related things from clients I'm involved with and services I use. It's just an ongoing, noisy stream of notifications.

Alternatives

I've found myself over the past year-and-a-bit stopping using email as the primary way of talking to people. The best way to get hold of me is to direct message (DM) me on Twitter. That really works for me — it's like IM without the stress.

Another good way to get hold of me is to IM me on Skype. If you do either of those two things, you'll get a reply quickly, and we'll both be happy.

Note the similarity between these two channels — they're immediate, and they're out-of-band. Being out-of-band means I actually see them. Being immediate means I just do them there and then, rather than thinking "I'll do that later", marking it as read, and never looking at it again until something gets forgotten, broken, or I get nagged.

Mind you, I'm just as bad as everyone else. Whilst writing that last paragraph I received an email from someone doing some design work for me. I emailed him back "thank you" — but did he actually need that? All I've done is created work for him in dealing with the message. Sure, it's polite, but saving him a distraction and ten seconds of his day but not replying is both polite and considerate.

That reminds me of something I heard the other day: "email is your to-do list that anyone can add to".

Fixing email

This brings me back to my first point. Email can actually be functional again, but no one is innovating. It's always "show a list of messages in a folder", click, "here is the preview of the message", click, "you can now reply to the message", yada yada.

What email is missing is any notion of the type of relationship that you have with the sender. I don't mind getting pointless emails from whatever LinkedIn groups I've trying in vain to get on with this month, I just don't want them glomming up stuff that's actually important.

TweetDeck — crazily — does this really well. What I wouldn't give for someone to build an email client that works like TweetDeck.

TweetDeck lets you create columns that can divide up the deluge of messages that come over the network. These columns are actually "sub-channels" within the larger Twitter channel. In the screenshot below, I've shown four channels — my DMs (which I've blanked out), my mentions (things I have to do things with), my timeline (general noise), and my "Foo" list. My "Foo" list is a slower running list where I subscribe to a subset of my main Twitter followers.

TweetDeck showing for columns, or subchannels.
My TweetDeck showing four channels that I used to transform Twitter from something noisy into something useable. (DMs omitted. I've got to have some secrets, right?!)

Why this works is that it filters the deluge of everything into little pieces that I can process more intelligently. It creates subchannels out of one massive, noisy channel.

Email for me, and I suspect a lot of readers, is just one massive, noisy channel. Taking what TweetDeck does in allowing the user to create and consume smaller subchannels seems like a sensible idea.

If someone would like to Kickstarter a better email client base on TweetDeck's subchannel idea, I'd sign up.

But in the meantime, Google spends a small fortune continually fiddling with Gmail but doesn't solve this basic problem. Yahoo seems keen on actually making email less useful. Outlook hasn't changed in twenty-odd years, and iPhone and iPad mail apps haven't changed since introduction.

Come on, people!

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topic: Mobility

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74 comments
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  • Postbag

    Well, now that you mention it ... I attempted last year with Postbag to raise the money I needed on Kickstarter to launch a new platform, it failed to raise more than £100 and the feedback was that we have enough email clients.

    However, I am getting ready to launch version 3 of Postbag on Kickstarter with a new email protocol, new platform, app, web service and a much improved UI.

    The alpha should be launched next week with Alpha testers hitting http://postbag.me/now/ and all Beta requests will be accepted via craig@postbag.me

    At the same time as launching the web app, I'll be working on the Android app and out sourcing the desktop app to a colleague.

    Here is last years failed kickstarter - http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/postbag/postbag-0

    Honestly though, no one cares about actually fixing the issues with email but more creating gimmicks and flashy task list/email apps.

    Kindest Regards
    Craig Reville
    • Concept of present day E Mail Inbox,Contacts,Subject,Address book Outdated

      1) The concept of present day E Mail In box ,Contacts , Subject and Address book is outdated
      2) What one needs is a
      a) A combined “Contact & Mail In Box –Business
      b) A combined “Contact & Mail In Box –Social”
      c) A "General In Box" or the Rest more like the present day Inbox for quick sorting.
      3) Similarly Contacts of Address Book will be divided into 3 sections as above.
      4) The above (a) & (b) to have auto filter to receive the mail in the respective Contact & Mail In Boxes which have reply & forward functions " all in one"
      5) a) Main Subject to written in by the originator of e mail
      b) Sub Subject to modified by either party as needed during the course of the correspondence of Main Subject.
      6) The main UI to show review of latest or last few e mails received.

      To put it in another way think of the each InBox as an old case folder in a lawyers office. Every correspondence sent received replie date wise.

      From : nboke
      nboke
      • Beta

        Send me your email and I'll invite you into the Beta when it's ready.

        I've spent about 2 and a half years working on Postbag, the full journey will be documented afterwards however for now, we're thinking roughly along the same lines in terms of outdated methodology for email clients.

        Postbag does however take it that step further by generating an open source email protocol which is more secure and will be more easily supported as well as an opensource mailing engine.

        Kindest Regards
        Craig Reville
        • Beta

          Thanks. Will do.
          nboke
          • Wouldn't mind joining your beta program...

            Hi Craig,

            Great article! This is something my CEO and I have talked about many times...and have high level brainstormed. Would be good to be part of your beta program for postbag.

            It's a shame that your initial kickstarted campaign only raised £100. Because what you describe is something that a lot of people have issues with but have never had a chance to properly think about.

            Perhaps the way to address it, is creating a unified API for different protocols (email, twitter, whatsapp, skype etc.) that an application can call? Something along the lines of a unified messaging bus. The challenge there is being able to tap into a proprietary messaging system, which a lot of companies don't present.

            Something I've been intrigued about (and working with) is http://deltacloud.apache.org/about.html - A unified cloud abstraction tool that allows you to move workloads across different cloud architectures. Essentially it provides a unified API and then 'scrubs and cleans' your request and presents to the relevant API that you want to talk to.

            Ofcourse this only works through Open Standards and an ecosystem of partners that have signed up to the alliance.

            Would be good to take the discussion offline as this is something that our company has talked about for a while.

            Walli
            Walli Datoo
  • E-mail is great for the right use

    It's an off-line message exchanging system. IM systems are very different things, while it has its use it doesn't replace email.
    Email is lasting so long because it's a great tool, changes around it are more in terms of organize received/sent emails than anything else.
    AleMartin
  • email is not a collaboration tool

    Though it's misused for that very purpose.
    Ever tried to replace your Pickup with a dedicated sports car ?

    What we really need is a set of refined collaboration tools that give the user an unmistakable hint about what to do.

    email was invented by scientists for exchanging ideas and concepts. It was never intended to be used as a productivity tool.

    Unfortunately, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail ... so to speak.
    EnticingHavoc
  • I disagree... Everything else is broken..

    The reason email is still the communication king is because everything else is isolated.. Yes, email is flooded with spam and updates and other useless messages but that is because as a technology is works.. Social network sites notify people of things through email because they know people look at it.. Spammers use it because they know everyone has it..

    There are so many communications platforms now be it all the IM services, facebook, twitter, skype etc.. The one thing that stops all these services being a challenger to email is they are all locked to themselves..

    From any ISP or email service I can contact anyone with an email address which everyone online has, They don't have to be using the same service provider I am.. From facebook I can only really contact people on facebook.. From Skype I can only contact people on Skype (well unless I pay to be able to phone them)..

    That raises another similar technology mess.. Really all voice communications should now be over IP but with Telco's, ITSP's all remaining isolated we all fall back to the common interconnected technology of the old phone system..

    So I disagree with your assessment.. Email is one of the systems that actually works and works well.. All the other "disconnected" services are the ones that are broken..
    wipeout_dude
    • I agree with you but also agree it is broken.......

      ....but for different reasons. I don't think email as a concept is broken but I think most here could pose an argument that the SMTP protocol is. Broken email as the author states seems to be solely around how to keep organized and ensure only meaningful communications are exposed. This can be accomplished with the right client and the right client settings. Inbox rules, for instance, can achieve much of the same benefits he is getting from TweetDeck. Various clients can present email in various ways. SMTP on its own would seem to be stagnant and has not met the security needs of today's environment. This is the single biggest problem with email and encourages problems like SPAM, email viruses, etc. and propagating the notion that email is broken.

      I definitely agree with you though. Everything else operates in silos and therefor hinders wide spread adoption. When I was reading this, I was thinking, there would be no way I would join twitter so I can do business with this gentleman. It is not ubiquitous enough nor is it adequate tool in which one can remain in to perform all communication needs. Email fits this model much better. Let's also not forget, Email, with the right client and back-end infrastructure, can be a great collaboration tool. In the enterprise space, I have Outlook with calendar integration and MS Lync integration. Many other applications also integrate well. I can collaborate with this toolset in a variety of ways, using the settings that help me manage the noise, without feeling like email is no longer adequate.

      Often times when I read articles like this, I think there is a lack or realization that what works for the individual user is not always the right solution for businesses with large teams.
      djmik
    • Effective communication

      Often many confuse effective communication with instant response. Sometimes the enforced delay of email makes for good communication because it allows one to (hopefully) think about the reply.

      There are only three methods of communication that can reach anywhere in the world relatively easily: snail mail, phone, and email. If one has a mailing address, phone number, email address one can send a message to anyone at varying costs, speed, and immediacy.
      Linux_Lurker
  • Email Channels

    If you are like me, you have many email addresses that essential create message channels. I have a main email address (at least 14 years old) that is the catch-all for those companies that require/need an address to allow you to buy, activate, or join something. It gets 50-60 messages daily and Thunderbird filters out all but about 10 of those. Of the remainder, I look at few and process them accordingly but many are simply deleted.

    I have a personal email address that is only given to trusted individuals like family and friends or trusted companies that I regularly buy or support. This "channel" gets maybe 3 to 6 messages daily and is easily handled and sorted.

    I have 3 more email addresses that relate to my business. These all are based on my registered domain names. The most traffic flows through my prime business account that is shared with trusted clients and companies as well as social networking (LinkedIn) and professional societies (like IEEE). The other two are used for specific projects and clients that are on the "front burner."

    My web domain hosting packages provide for literally hundreds more accounts. Some of these have been given to family members. However, I refuse to use any free web based accounts such as yahoo.com, gmail.com, outlook.com, or any other service like these. I feel the reason that these are free is that these corporations realize the value of the data contained in my correspondence and do their best to harvest and exploit that value.
    Splork
  • "Outlook hasn't changed in twenty-odd years,..."

    And this is a BAD thing? If something is working...why screw around with it? Simply for the sake of change?

    My University went with Google Apps for Education less than a year ago, yet Google has made 3-4 significant changes in the UI that have done nothing but confuse the users. And most of the changes are for the worse...not the better.

    Just about the time that the users are familiar with the UI...these idiots go and make ANOTHER change to it.

    I realize that most people under the age of 45 these days have the attention span of a flea...and as probably the vast majority of developers at Google fall into that age category...it explains why they continually mess with the UI. Either that...or they are all ADHD.

    I use the Outlook client with Google Apps, and find it FAR more useful than using the Chrome UI.

    So if the author feels that e-mail is a dinosaur...and I see he also feels that we are now in the "Post-PC" era. Where EVERYONE will be using tablets or smartphone to conduct their daily computing needs in offices around the world. Right? Yea...sure we are...NOT.

    Keep dreaming kid.
    IT_Fella
    • Outlook/Exchange has NEVER Worked

      It's always been hard to manage, cumbersome to use, unreliable, and costly. The only reason it gained traction was MS gave away CAL's and "only" made you pay for the server. Problem is the server is extremely unreliable and cumbersome.

      Outlook has always been a POS and Exchange came along with it for the ride.

      As the Excange Admin saying goes: "It's not if you loose e-mail but when!"
      itguy10
      • Re: Outlook — Thank you

        Thank you for pointing out that Outlook is, and always has been a POS. When my employer switched to Exchange, and forced everyone to use Outlook, it was one of the many small things that pushed me to quit my job and take early retirement. I have never understood why anybody who isn't forced to would use Outlook, let alone prefer it to other alternatives.
        S_Deemer
        • Outlook is easy to use

          Good thing you retired, your company was only hurt by your continuing employment.
          hoppmang
      • Call the NSA

        If you lose all your emails, just call the NSA and ask for a quote to get them back. I expect that the government would love to pick up some revenue doing that! Maybe you could subscribe to an alert service that would remind you to email your mother if you go too long without communicating. just like Yakov Smirnoff's description of the snail mail service in the old Soviet Union: "they pick you up and take you downtown and READ your mail to you!"
        jallan32
        • haha

          brilliant
          david gojira
      • What Exchange admin are you talkng about

        I ran our office Exchange server for 3 years before we moved to a centralized Exchange server, no on ever lost an email. The service just worked. I know you just take any chance you get to bash Microsoft so I will leave it at that. I will ONLY use Outlook, it works great with any of my outside mail services and since we have Enterprise Exchange internally, guess what, it just works with that too.
        hoppmang
        • Outlook/Exchange

          Have used it for years. Never lost emails, never down due to software problems, even during upgrades and conversions. Some IT posters must not be that competent in their installing and administration abilities. I am not a guru by any stretch, but if I can master Outlook/Exchange there is no excuse for your failures.
          rollguy
    • Problem isn't Technology, it's People

      Many good things turn bad as a result of greed...messaging technology of every kind is no exception. Unscrupulous companies spend billions of dollars trying to create marketing profiles of us all. Unless you exercise extreme privacy measures, any product or service you express even a sliver of interest in is painted throughout your browser in the next session. If I click on a pool pump, for instance, chances are there will be a picture of a pool pump somewhere on the border of the next site I visit, or a pool company's pop-up add will raise up like a sales prospect swatter right in the foreground of my reading material. Similar exploitation of IM, tweets, posts, and every other variety of messaging medium is compiled, combed, analyzed, cubed, cross-referenced...all in an effort to shake out exactly what you're interested in...so you can have all kinds of superfluous information on the subject rammed into your eye sockets and ears until you've lost so much energy and focus that you just purchase out of desperation to make it stop. But it never will.
      mfrazer@...