Email Isn't Broken

And it isn't just for To Do lists, either. Here's my personal screed about email.

First of all, let's get a few things straight. 1) I already have pretty good systems in place for managing email but they could be better; I don't think email is particularly broken, it just needs better management tools; 2) I don't give two shits about getting to "Inbox Zero;" this is not the Nirvana it's portrayed as.

The Inbox Zero Myth

Much ado has been made about the concept of Inbox Zero. I believe this all derives from the Getting Things Done movement that was all the rage a few years ago and that has really set down roots in certain quarters. GTD never really made much sense to me at the time — it's just task management, which any reasonably adult and disciplined person should be able to handle on his own — and Inbox Zero doesn't either.

The idea behind Inbox Zero is that if you can get your Inbox down to zero, then you've probably addressed everything — or at least many of the things — you need to address in any given day, and you can then reclaim your own brain. And there's probably a good deal of truth to that if a lot of your job involves responding to email, which for many of us it actually does.

So applications have been developed that give you immediate ways of dealing with email such that it stays out of your Inbox. Mailbox is the latest such app. In Mailbox, when you get an email you are intended to act upon it immediately, either by responding or by filing the email into one of Mailbox's preset filers. Mailbox will then, at a later date that you can specify, remind you of any emails that still require action by returning them to your Inbox.

The problem I have with this method is that it doesn't help you get anything done. It just offloads tasks that can't be acted upon immediately into a folder. This isn't Getting Things Done, this is hiding the things you've chosen to skip or ignore, and rather than productivity, it's essentially procrastination. Where Inbox Zero is supposed to signify accomplishment, the Mailbox method simply provides that illusion.

Frankly, Inbox Zero just doesn't really matter much, especially if all you're doing is filing things rather than acting on them. What you're trying to manage with an app like Mailbox is action, behavior, and I don't think an app — or at least not apps like the ones I've seen — can really help you do that.

Where Mail Is Broken

The problem with thinking about Mail like a simple To Do list is that it belies the many things Email is actually very good at, in particular, the sending and receiving of Electronic Mail, which is still, even in this day and age, horrendously useful. It also ignores all the other things people have begun to use email for.

From where I sit, there are certainly numerous ways in which email — and specifically email clients — can be better.

Spam

Junk email is still a problem, and no one has really cracked that nut to my full satisfaction. Gmail does about as good a job as anyone, and sometimes even offers to unsubscribe to messages you mark. But I think we need more of this, even better tools for managing spam than simply marking things "Spam." Rules are great, but I'd love to see more sophisticated and dynamic rule-making tools that query me when I mark something as Spam. As it is now, I either rely on server-side spam filters, or I write rules and blacklists by hand. And that's kind of a drag. 

Bacn

Which leads us to bacn, spam's lonely, slightly more attractive forgotten cousin, that non-malicious advertising email that we all get but don't necessarily want to see or really know how to manage. Some folks have been trying to figure out how to deal with bacn, and the tools sound intriguing. I'm looking forward to trying them. But right now there is no standalone email client or service that I know of that offers built-in bacn management.

File Sharing

I realize that email is not the proper tool for sharing files, and yet people do it all the time. There have been some good attempts at making email clients with better large attachment handling through services like Dropbox, but there's still not what I'd call a good option here.

Identities and Authentication

We all have multiple online logins these days, and multiple email accounts. Authentication and identity are huge issues, the scope of which spread far beyond the world of email. Still, email clients could be much better about handling multiple accounts.

Saving Your Ass

How many times have you forgotten to include the attachment you meant to send? How many times have you forgotten to CC someone on a particular thread? Not too many email clients do much to prevent the sorts of common mistakes we all make all the time. Gmail does a pretty good job here, but this is still an area rife with opportunity for email client authors.

Etc.

There are even more areas in which email could be improved. This is just a handful of the many and varied ways we use this invaluable tool. Email clients that attempt to simplify what email can do are doomed.

Developers that seek to pigeonhole the email paradigm are going about it the wrong way. Email is extremely good at what it does; this is why it's been so successful as a product. Think about it: email has been around in much the same form for 20 years. There are few other tech products you can say this about. Indeed, I'd argue that its success is the reason it has the problems it has today. It's so good at what it does that people have begun using it for everything.

How to "Fix" Email

If you really want to make email work better, I believe you need not to make it different or simpler in functionality, but rather to make it better at dealing with its newfound complexity. Don't reenvision email as something else — that's already been done by everyone who uses email — but instead make a client that accounts for all the new uses we've found for email. Yes, it's now a To Do list, but it's also an FTP server, and a chat engine, and a scheduler, and a file manager, and a database. And it's still one of the most primary tools we use for peer-to-peer communication, we still use email for email.

Right now, for my money, Gmail in the browser is as good an email client as there is. It's fast and reliable, it works better than most for many of the aforementioned uses, and it even saves my ass from time to time. But it could be so, so much better at all the new little things we want to do with email.

I think whoever writes the client that deals best with all these eventualities simply and elegantly will have the winner.