What does the cloud mean for email?

Nimbus
Photo by David AG Wilson

There are two big reasons email hasn’t been evolving like the web; the data’s a lot harder to get hold of and it’s really hard to crunch it once you have it. The web relies on the cloud to solve the second part, and I’m convinced that email will need something similar to move forward.

Almost all the exciting tools in the email world are client plugins, because that’s the easiest and most secure place to grab the data. The big drawback is that client CPU cycles and disk space are scarce resources. You can get a 1 terabyte disk for less than $200, but any client application that used more than a few hundred megabytes would be considered ill-behaved, even though the monetary cost of that space is currently just a few cents. This is because you can’t rely on that space being available, it may be an older machine, a lap-top, full of other data files, or a million other reasons that make relying on large client disk usage unpopular with users. The same holds true for CPU cycles, anything that slows down Outlook or increases the risk of a crash will be shunned.

Cloud computing makes it possible to take advantage of cheap storage to improve the user experience. For example, take a heavy email user and assume that an average message contains 10,000 characters, she gets 1,000 a day, and there’s about 2,000 days of email in her account. That’s around 20 GB of storage, or $4.00 worth. Imagine creating a Google-style index of every word in that email, so she can instantly search it all. Even if that quadrupled the storage size to 80 Gb, that’s still only $20 of storage, with a massive user benefit.

So, if that’s all true, what’s stopping a flood of startups taking advantage of this? In the consumer world Xoopit is doing great work, but they’re having to ask people for their gmail passwords since there’s no other way of grabbing the data. Without a more official API, it’s a pretty scary proposition to build a business around. On the enterprise side, there’s an almost complete lack of overlap between the people who know how to interface with Exchange, and those who want to do crazy new startups.

What’s the answer then? That’s what I’m working on, so watch this space.

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