Enterprise email is boring


After chatting some more with Nat Torkington of O’Reilly, the source for my previous article, he pointed out I misquoted him. He actually said "enterprise email is boring", and then outlined a few examples of the huge number of exciting things that are waiting to happen with mail:

  • Forms in email for seamless interactivity with web applications … Ajax even?
  • People you send email to form your contacts, why doesn’t your mail client automatically update your address book and buddy list when you’ve exchanged more than a few emails?
  • NLP-based clustering of mails into topical and thematic groups (pre-/auto- filtering)
  • Better indexing of old mail and visualizations of those indexes
  • Integrated GTD/productivity systems

Xobni does a good job with automatic contact extraction and ranking, but I’ve seen very little work done on the remaining areas. I Want Sandy is a great email-based scheduling tool that could grow into a full productivity system, and there’s been research on automatic mail categorization, but that’s about it.

He also questioned why I am so focused on the server side, since it looks to him like most of the interesting stuff should happen on the client. I’m building a server-based system because that’s where the data is. There’s patterns that emerge from a whole organization’s communications that you can’t see when you’re just looking at a single person’s inbox. There’s companies like Trampoline Systems that offer business intelligence based on this, and lots of forensic analysis work’s been done to discover patterns after the fact, but nobody’s trying to build tools to give this information to users.

Another reason driving me is ease of use. It’s much simpler to build indices and do other pre-processing work ahead of time in a server and offer the user an immediate experience through a web app, than requiring a client-side install and then spending time and storage space creating that data locally.

Probably the biggest stumbling block with this plan is a final point he brings up, that the pace of change in corporate IT departments is painfully slow. The most successful products in this area have been driven by an urgent and painful problem like spam, where someone will be fired if a solution isn’t found. I’ll need a very compelling application to get traction.

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