Aaron Shapiro

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Email Needs Improvement, Not Google Voice or Wave

Originally published in MediaPost, August 30, 2010

Those watching the Google Wave crash have posited that the communications platform failed because it was hard to use. Mashable founder and CEO Pete Cashmore said, "With its many dials and switches, mastering Wave was the web equivalent of programming your VCR." A valid point. Tech Crunch's MG Siegler argued the ambitious product was under-supported by Google. Another reasonable assertion.

But in the end, Google Wave, underneath the layers of document sharing, task tracking, meeting scheduling and wave making was a simple tool to improve communications between co-workers, friends and family. The trouble is there is already a king of the communications kingdom: email.

Email is something that can only exist courtesy of the network effect. It's both wonderful and terrible, indispensable and so utterly outdated it's just waiting to be replaced, but in the end, the product is so entrenched it never goes away.

Let's take a step back to admire how amazing email really is: it's ubiquitous, convenient, nearly real-time, sends files, facilitates group conversations without a meeting room reservation or call-in number, and it creates a lasting record of all words expressed. It encourages accountability and efficiency. It's incredibly easy to use. Almost too easy, given the number of forwards my parents won't stop sending me. Most valuable of all, the majority of emails are brief and only require a brief response. It allows me to sneak my work and social life into the slivers of my day once wasted: waiting for a friend at a restaurant, sitting in a taxi cab, waiting for curtain call at the theater. It's key to my and millions of others' daily lives.

But email is also very flawed and it is those flaws that motivate Google Wave and others to step up to the plate to take a crack at breaking down its market dominance:

  • Problem #1 - Collaboration: Anyone who has sent a file attachment understands the difficulty in collaborating and sharing files with email: a lack of version control, multiple copies of the same file clogging up an inbox, and people making overlapping changes to the same document. But we all put up with it. This is arguably the primary problem Google Wave was trying to solve, and it's the holy grail of any attempt to fix email. Meanwhile, services like Dropbox take a completely different approach to this issue by allowing simultaneous sharing of files and folders across multiple people's computers. That's a great service, but it doesn't pull me away from my inbox.
  • Problem #2 - Search: In the digital world, we live in the Google search box, but our inbox remains plagued by terrible search functionality. Thanks to problem #1, I find myself looking for files within my mail client and the result is disaster. I can find out the population of Karachi in .25 seconds thanks to Google, but it takes forever to find the right version of a spreadsheet I sent to a colleague. (Google desktop search does little to fix this either.)
  • Problem #3 - Threads: Gmail and now mail on iOS has does an admirable job of threading replies and group conversations, but group conversations are still impossible to manage. It's all too easy to lose track of a conversation's status when more than two people are involved. How many times have you had to scroll down line after line of increasingly indented text to figure out where the conversation began, where it stands, and what you're supposed to respond to? Email lacks a clear, shared conversation thread design. In the consumer space we happily use Facebook groups to solve these issues, but within email things are positively 20th century.
  • Problem #4 - Complex Messages: Complex messages are challenging to respond to. If more than one piece of information is included in an email, and the respondent wants to address each item separately, the only way to do so is in a bulleted list or in a different style font. Not very efficient.
  • Problem #5 - Not Real-Time: The other day I had to cancel a lunch with a friend... and he didn't get my email until dinner. That's obviously an anomaly, but email's lack of real-time response and reliability impedes communication. On top of that you never really know if a colleague received your message. Google Wave tried to move email to become more like instant messaging where you can see if people are online and available. That certainly was the right direction.
  • Problem #6: Security: It's astounding that given email's lack of security-and the incredible ease in which you can fake the sender of an email message-that the system hasn't fallen apart in a sea of mistrust. Security should be fixed, but maybe it's not a real problem because email continues to hum along even with no security protocol whatsoever.

In light of these problems, it's no wonder that Google stopped Wave development and decided instead to include yet another network effect technology, the phone, into Gmail. But this doesn't solve the flaws of email. In the end, users needs demand a better solution. But network effects ensure that some parts of the digital world will be unlikely to ever change.

While Wave and many others before it failed to displace email, three recent services have, amazingly, made a dent in email communications: Facebook, Twitter and SMS. Once I was flooded with emails of articles I just had to read. Now those links tend to get posted on Twitter instead. Facebook has succeeded in getting large numbers of people to "live" in their newsfeed instead of their inbox, and Facebook messaging functions to replicate the more private, one-on-one quality of email. And for those yet to enter the workforce, SMS wins-faster, ubiquitous, immediate and no spelling required. But as soon as you grow up and get a job, email gains control.