Email isn’t there yet

Messageinabottle

Photo by funtik.cat

I don't agree with everything that Alex Payne writes in his latest blog post (I think there's a lot of potential in PostBox and Gmail's lack of inline messages is a major barrier for me) but he's spot on that email is caught in a strange time warp. There have been very few real advances in years, as the Foundry guys put it did Darwin skip over email?

A big part of the problem is that email is a closed silo. Any tiny startup can crawl the web, try something different with the data and then show it to potential users. The barriers for mail are much higher, you either need to persuade people to migrate to an entirely new email account to use your service, or write a desktop app with all the overhead that entails. I've been heavily focused on finding chinks in the armor surrounding all the email silos, since I think that's the only way we're going to see real innovation.

Will anyone use Mailana?

Conversation

Photo by Eye2Eye

Our inboxes contain deeply private messages, so I'm used to hearing an initial reaction like this from Pascal Van Hecke

Watching http://web.mailana.com/demo/ don't understand anyone can believe employees will ever let their employers analyse all of their email

I need to create a full video to address why that first impression is wrong, but here's the short version:

Employees have complete control. The system suggests a profile for every person, but they're free to alter it, or even not publish it at all. There's a white-list of expertise keywords so all the suggestions will be safe, and nothing is revealed but your profile.

Employees benefit. I'm passionate about building this thanks to my experiences at the Apple coal face. Ask anyone working in a large company, they desperately need better ways of finding expertise. My goal is to save some unneeded late nights and hair loss and help people get things done faster.

Big Brother doesn't pay. There is a small market out there for business intelligence and  'compliance' monitoring of email, but very few companies want to alienate their employees by making them feel spied on. The big opportunity is in building a tool that is eagerly adopted by users, and that means building something they can trust to protect their privacy.

Similar projects were popular. I've spoken directly to a number of users of both Microsoft Knowledge Network and Tacit, earlier attempts based on similar ideas. Everyone who'd used them was very happy with the results.

I know I'll have to fight hard to win people over, but this really is an innovation that can make the world better, not another step towards an Orwellian nightmare. As @ev said at TED "when you give people better ways to share information, great things happen".

See your top friends on Twitter

Twitterfriendslogo

I released Mailana running on public Twitter data today! Tim O'Reilly kindly retweeted a link to it, so it's had a good load test. Fingers-crossed it's handling it so far.

If you're a new reader, here's a bit of background. My names's Pete Warden, I'm the founder of Mailana, and up until 6 months ago I was an engineer at Apple. I can't imagine a more impressive corporation to work for, but I knew there had to be better ways to collaborate within big companies. I spent a lot of time tracking down internal experts and the right people to talk to at external organizations by word of mouth. There was a lot of wasted work simply because employees in one department had no way of telling that their problem had already been solved by another team.

One day, I realized that just by analyzing my inbox, I could create a pretty decent profile of what projects and areas I was involved in, by looking for how often keywords show up, and who I talk to both within the company and at external customers and suppliers. Being able to easily build these expertise and contact profiles would let companies build directories to allow employees to easily find the resources they need. The biggest problem is ensuring that the privacy of people's email is respected, so the system I designed only publishes profiles after each employee has reviewed and edited their own.

You can see an example of how the system works here:
http://web.mailana.com/demo/

To build these applications, I designed a cloud-based system that imports from Exchange, Gmail accounts via IMAP, Outlook PST files and Twitter, offers a simple REST API to the stored data, and allows you to build apps as web widgets that can be deployed through the browser, on Sharepoint and as native menu entries and windows within Outlook.

Since there's not much public email out there, I decided to demonstrate what it's capable of using the massive number of public messages available on Twitter. My system internally processes a standard XML format, so I just wrote an importer that converted tweets into the right form, the rest of the system is identical to the Exchange version. I tidied up the web app that displays your immediate contacts, and had a Twitter social graph viewer up and running.

I'm hopeful that http://twitter.mailana.com/ will demonstrate how much interesting information there is sitting unused in your personal communication data. I think there's some amazing opportunities to build really useful tools, as long as we can design systems that preserve privacy. Imagine a version of LinkedIn that knew how close you were to all your contacts! Let me know what you think, and if your organization is interested in giving Mailana a try.

Get customers

Customerservice

Photo by Matt Watts

The only way to figure out what your users want from your software is to release it and get feedback. As an engineer, this is something I constantly struggle with, because at any given time the actual product is only a pale shadow of what I know it could be if I had just one more week! How can I possibly release it in this state?!

Having a release deadline forces you to prioritize and fix the boring problems you know the user will hit, rather than doing something more fun and arcane. Once it's released, you'll also rapidly discover that users don't care about the things you expect, and drive the product in completely unexpected directions.

A couple of articles this week were good reminders to keep focused on getting releases into the wild. Tom Evslin blogged his advice for entrepreneurs, drawing on Jeff Jarvis's new book What Would Google Do? When Google News was about to be released, the programmers were warring over whether to put their resources into sorting by date, or location. They couldn't decide, so it was released with neither, and 300 of 305 emails from users asked for date.

In a darker scenario, Eric Ries talks about a project he'd been involved with that waited too long to release. It was a well-funded, multi-year project, staffed with smart people with a clear plan that they executed on. I've seen a lot of these at engineering-driven companies, where a powerful figure with a technical background will spin tales of the wonderful software he can build, if he's only given enough resources. They always feel like the Apollo program, full of idealism and shooting for audacious goals. The trouble is, you don't find out if your goals match the customer's needs until the end. No matter how many market surveys and focus groups you run, you'll never get a clear idea of what people will actually pay for. Building it in one shot like that also means you've got a massive foundation of instant legacy code that makes it hard to adapt once you do hear from real users. That's exactly what happened to Eric's project, after pouring years and millions of dollars into the software it flopped on release and the company failed.

Have a strong vision of what you wanted to achieve and big hairy audacious goals, but stay on course by releasing early and often.