Integrated inboxes wave of the future?

Some users see integrated inboxes limited to enterprises, but businesses such as Google and Mozilla expect the humble e-mail inbox to evolve into these platforms.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor on

Some users see the new slew of integrated inboxes being limited to the workplace, but Web companies such as Google and Mozilla Foundation see these platforms as an evolution of the humble e-mail inbox, as we know it today.

In May this year, Google debuted its Google Wave project at its I/O Developer conference, an integrated messaging platform tying in functions including instant messaging and embedded applets into an e-mail-like interface.

Firefox-maker, Mozilla, too announced an experimental "aggregator" called Raindrop, which aims to park messages from a plethora of media such as Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging and Google Docs into one "inbox".

But while public interest in these platforms have been high--Google noted in September it received over a million requests from users to preview Wave--some users see such integrated platforms being limited to business collaboration.

Reene Ho, a Singapore-based marketing executive, said in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, an integrated platform would be most suited for collaborative work, where multiple users can join a conversation thread for planning.

These platforms, she noted, offer increased functionality over the vanilla inbox via by apps and plug-ins. "Maps and 'yes/no' gadgets can [help] make quick polls," she said.

Another Singapore-based user, Angeline Yeo, said her company was trialing Google Wave to share and edit documents.

In an e-mail interview, Yeo said she would be open to e-mail evolving into a Wave-like interface: "If e-mail can look and act like Google Wave it would help with keeping track of the latest e-mail [messages]. I don't have the habit of replying e-mail immediately, and sometimes the message that needs [attention] gets lost in the tsunami of e-mail that comes in after."

Ho noted however, that the "live typing" feature in Google Wave would pose a privacy issue for enterprise users. The platform allows participants in a thread to view what others are typing as they type it; users joining the thread later can also view amendments made via a playback function.

"With e-mail, I can type out a draft, look at it, review it, and if I don't like what I'm writing, or can't think of a good way to phrase things, I can chuck it in the drafts folder," she pointed out. "But with Wave's live typing, there's no way I can ensure my message goes out the way I want it to be.

"Anyone can just look at the playback and know exactly what I've typed. Not a good idea."

According to Ho, the learning curve involved may turn casual users off. On top of that, there are also inconveniences. For example, Ho's Google Wave account incorporates her Twitter and MSN messaging accountswidgets and she has to physically open up the Wave window to find out if it's a new tweet, IM (instant messaging) or Wave message.

She noted: "Personally, I don't think [platforms such as] Wave will replace e-mail anytime soon. It's too 'gadgety' to catch on like e-mail."

An inbox evolution
In an e-mail response to ZDNet Asia, a Google spokesperson said the creation of Wave was to update e-mail and instant messaging, which were "originally designed in the '60s to imitate analog formats--e-mail mimicked snail mail and instant messages mimicked phone calls".

The evolution of online communication, which has seen people hop onto blogs, wikis and collaborative documents, led Google to initiate Wave as a fresh starting point of communication from these "advances", said the spokesperson. "It's still early days, but we feel that the integration of different data formats...like photos, videos and maps...and interactive tools presents a new way for users to communicate and collaborate online," she explained.

David Ascher, CEO of Mozilla Messaging, the Foundation's subsidiary which focuses on Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail client, said in an e-mail to ZDNet Asia the integrated inbox is not just for the power user, but the generation that has grown up on a staple of social networking platforms.

"Today's power users aren't just the BlackBerry-addicted business types of the past," he noted. "These days, even young consumers have multiple e-mail accounts, twitter and facebook accounts, and more. With the rise of social networking and microblogging, lots of types of users feels the need for identifying what's relevant or urgent, or even just struggle with finding messages that they know they saw, but can't remember where."

Ascher said openness will pave the way to more integration between messaging platforms online. "It will really depend on whether the companies that produce products are willing and able to recognize that their users use services that go beyond their own offerings.

"The integrated inboxes that will likely be most successful are those that realize users don't limit their contacts to specific social networks," he pointed out.

On the eventuality of a Raindrop-type interface finding its way into the enterprise, Ascher said the integrated movement will be consumer-driven.

"I think the consumer market is leading the charge here, because people are communicating in a huge variety of new ways, and enterprises tend to be slower to adopt new technologies," he said, noting that worker demand will help move the way enterprises choose their IT products, "even if [these] were not on the CIO's plan" initially.

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