I had a great conversation on Friday night with a very savvy technology journalist. I gave him the pitch on my email work, he threw in a lot of smart and incisive questions, and he discussed some of the similar projects he’d covered. At the end though he threw out the line "but anyway, email is boring".
That’s what I find so interesting about it! Here’s a content-creation technology that’s used by billions of people every day, far more than will ever write anything that ends up on the web, and almost no ones doing anything innovative with it. Here’s why the web is hopping and email is languishing:
Closed technology. Email is scattered across different web services, in-house Exchange servers, social sites like Facebook and using a plethora of both web-based and PC clients. Most of these have no API you can use to programatically access the messages, and the few that do have a very steep learning curve. That all makes it orders of magnitude easier to get to the "hello world" stage of a web app than it is to get started doing something interesting with mail.
Closed data. When you’re working with the web, there’s an enormous public corpus of data available just by spidering. Email is private, and it’s very hard to find large collections of email to work with. The Enron set is the only one I know of. That means even if you do have a brilliant idea for working with email, it’s very hard to prototype and test it.
Solve these two problems, even partially, and there’s a world of possibilities. That’s why I’m building a platform and API to let you work with email in a simple way. Write native importers that feed Exchange, Gmail, etc data into a standard XML pipeline, and then you can cheaply and quickly create interesting tools to work with that information. Social networks, content analysis, collaboration tools, personal assistants, trend spotting, that’s when it all gets really exciting.