Can a startup challenge Google on the re-invention of e-mail?

The two co-founders of a small Silicon Valley startup had a "Holy Crap!" moment last week when Google unveiled Wave, a online tool that's looking to reinvent e-mail, IM and other forms of online communications.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

The two co-founders of a small Silicon Valley startup had a "Holy Crap!" moment last week when Google unveiled Wave, a online tool that's looking to reinvent e-mail, IM and other forms of online communications.

For the past several months, Michael Cerda and Ben Dean, co-founders of a Palo Alto company called Cc:Betty, have been working on something very similar to what Wave is shaping up to be: an online platform that attempts to answer the question: "If e-mail were invented today, what would it look like?"

At first, the thought was one of concern that mighty Google, with its deep pockets and many resources, could crush the small startup. Then, it became a moment of realization. They had a great idea - and Google's investment into Wave validated that work that Cerda and Dean were doing.

Wave won't be released to the public until later this year while Google taps into the developer community to increase its functionality with open-source apps. Cc:Betty, on the other hand, is out now and just had yet another small update to its launch product.

There seems to be a general agreement that changing the way people use e-mail isn't something that will happen overnight. That's probably one of the biggest downfalls of Google Wave: it is a complete re-invention of something that people use everyday and are quite comfortable using, despite its unruliness. Changing habits is never easy and Google will have its work cut out for it.

Over at the startup, the first step to a new approach comes in the form of Betty, an online persona of the stereotypical 1950s secretary who kept her boss's messages, letters, files, Rolodex and calendar organized so he could focus on the task at-hand, the job itself. It's Betty's job to keep related e-mail messages - you know, the back-and-forth conversations that occur all day - organized in a central location, called a Mailspace (see image). But for her to do her job, the user has to remember to do one simple thing. The user has to Cc Betty on that e-mail.

Once she gets the e-mail, she sorts through everything from dates to attachments within the message so that it's available - in the context that it should be - for the user's review.

Sounds simple enough, right? But that takes us back to the challenge of changing habits. It won't be easy to get users to get into the habit of copying Betty on every e-mail that's sent.

Or will it?

Cerda and Dean appear to have some deals in the works that will involve automating a CC to Betty, maybe through an extension or a plug-in for the browser or mail client. Cerda wouldn't get into details or name names but he seemed pretty confident that the stumbling block of getting people to remember to Cc Betty would be short-lived. The next step, of course, is to get users comfortable with the idea of communicating through a mailspace interface. (see image)

Can a small startup - made up the two co-founders and one employee working in a studio apartment in Silicon Valley - go head-to-head with a powerhouse like Google on something as revolutionary as the re-invention of e-mail?

Why not? Google may be a powerhouse, but look no further than GMail to recognize that even the mighty Google doesn't hit a home run with every product it launches. Yahoo Mail still dominates that space and one of the reasons some people have resisted GMail is because of its conversation-style management of e-mail messages.

Personally, I like GMail's set-up. And I'm excited to see what Wave will look like when it finally goes public. As for Cc Betty, my frustration with regular e-mail is such that I'll give it a chance (though I may wait for the plug-in or extension.)

I like where Wave is headed but I think there's also something to be said for taking baby steps on the total re-invention. I like the approach of taking this transformation slowly, one step at a time.

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