There’s some great examples out there of using email as the gateway to a service. I Want Sandy is a fantastic automated personal assistant that you drive entirely through email. You send emails containing natural language details of your events and lists, and you get back timely reminders and updates. Posterous lets you email files and documents directly to a website, with an incredibly streamlined interface.
So why do they use email as an interface, rather than the web?
Everybody can email. You don’t have to teach anyone a new web interface. You type in a mail, chose an address and hit send.
Mail programs make great content. You can easily attach files, add text styles and include photos. If I forget and hit Command-B in Firefox while I’m writing a blog post, my text doesn’t get bolded, I just get to see the bookmarks sidebar. Email programs get this right, they give you drag and drop, hot-keys and let you create good-looking documents easily.
Email is everywhere. Sure, most devices also have the web, but they usually have a much better UI for mail.
Email contains everything. Outlook is the center of most professional lives, and personal email already has most of the information, files and pictures you want to share. Being able to do interesting things with all of that without stepping outside of your mail service is really convenient. All of your history with any service is stored in the same place you keep everything else.
So how can you tap into that power? I don’t know what Sandy and Posterous are using, but GoodServer looks like an intriguing solution. It’s a Java library that implements an IMAP server that you can then plug your custom application logic into. They’ve got good documentation, a free evaluation copy, and it’s been battle-tested by a lot of commercial outfits.