Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Taking charge of email

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 25 September 2012. 

There is something very interesting in the manner in which the Office of Information Technology chose the replacement for Princeton’s Webmail system: The transparent process shows how important emailing tools are to our everyday workflows. But email today remains problematic in many ways, and it may be worth our time to think about how we want to communicate.

OIT’s choice came down to Microsoft Exchange 2010 (which came with Office 365) and Gmail from the Google Apps suite. Both Microsoft and Google independently presented their solutions to students, and OIT decided to have 150 students test both systems. Only two of those students preferred Office 365, so Google Apps was adopted.

The move to have students test both offerings was recognition that software is meant to solve problems for the end user. More often than not, information technology departments of large organizations will make software decisions for all other staff. This can often lead to operating efficiencies, but doing so disregards personal preferences and can tend to overlook usage trends from the people who will use these services most. So the transparent user test reaffirmed that answering our email is our problem and it might be worthwhile if we had a say in how we did it.

It is also interesting to consider why Gmail was the popular choice. Many students already used Gmail for their personal accounts, and often forwarded all Princeton email to Gmail. Familiarity with Gmail has therefore been considered an important reason in this decision. While that may be true, I don’t think it’s that simple. Gmail pioneered modern email when it came out in 2004. It took storage limits from Hotmail’s paltry two megabytes to a whopping one gigabyte at the time (Gmail storage now stands close to 10 times that amount). It used Google’s successful search technology and brought it to email, and also pioneered the use of AJAX (a quick, dynamic website technology) in mainstream web applications. The interface at the time was simple, fast, uncluttered and useful.

Other major Gmail innovations included labels, filters, starring and, later, Priority Inbox. Many people equate labels to folders, but I think it is more useful to think of them as Post-it notes. You can use many labels at once and then a quick glance at a message with a color coded label can tell you what it’s about. Combine this with filtering, which auto-sorts your email as it arrives, and it’s a powerful tool. While mail filters are part of most major email clients (often referred to as rules), labels remain largely a Gmail specialty. Think of starring as a quick way to identify emails that you want to get to in the near future. And Priority Inbox is Gmail’s artificial intelligence system that learns from your usage patterns and divides incoming email into important and not important categories.

One Gmail philosophy that seems to bemuse most users is archiving. It takes a while to understand where Google was going with this, but the idea itself is interesting. Gmail is designed so that your inbox contains only emails that you want to respond to or follow up with in some way. All other mail can be archived. As a result,  your inbox is uncluttered and allows you to get to relevant email much quicker. It can be quite useful for some, but most people would rather not be bothered with the extra click to archive every email they’re done with.

Google put some real thought into email, but today, email seems to have become more problematic than Google’s solutions can keep up with. The Gmail interface has since become more cluttered, and usage on mobile devices, especially iPhones, is compromised. None of Gmail’s flagship features work well with most native desktop and mobile applications.

By and large, Gmail’s stagnation parallels our general failure to fathom how we use email. We don’t just send emails to replace letters anymore; our email inboxes our now our to do lists, our broadcasting mechanisms, our way to listen in on conversations in large groups and also where we store important information. So electronic mail is now a replacement, in some ways, for memo pads, radios, walkie-talkies, desk drawers. Unfortunately, it is also getting as noisy as these mediums once were.

Because of the volume of email, it has become reasonable to assume that it is not possible for many to respond to all their email. Our most vital communication mechanism is now run with the assumption that the communication we intend to do may not happen at all. You’d think this was a problem someone would care more about, but developing mail clients is hard. Mozilla’s Thunderbird, a popular desktop client, is no longer under active development. Sparrow, an innovative desktop and mobile app for Gmail, has been acquired by Google, and many think this was encouraged by the fact that the Sparrow team just could not make enough money to sustain the work it was putting into its software. Microsoft, Google, Apple and some independent developers continue to tweak email offerings in the hope that a better solution emerges.

Meanwhile, our activity on other Internet networks has also created new communication paradigms. Facebook has become a nice sharing mechanism, and Twitter is the new broadcasting tool, but in many ways email remains a bit of all of these things. As our electronic communication continues to increase, email will remain an important problem to solve, one that deserves not just the attention of software guys, but of everyone to whom email has become an essential service.