#email

Is email really 30 years old? Nope. It’s more like 47 years old. Technology historian Thomas Haigh sets the record state in an email to David Pogue:

Email, or electronic mail, is actually at least 40 years old, and the NY Times itself has documented its use in 1965 (47 years ago). Hence, collecting endorsements for the “30 year anniversary” claim, i.e. 1982 as the origin date for email, is an key strategy for Ayyadurai.

47 years old. This is a channel we all still use to communicate.

Interesting post by Y Combinator partner Harj Taggar. Rather than fully quitting email, he simply removed it from his phone. This meant he could *only* check it when he was at a computer — you know, like the old days. 

I’m pretty much the opposite these days — I enjoy checking and responding to it much more on my mobile devices instead of the desktop web because Gmail on the web is so much slower in every regard (the only real plus — and it’s a big one — in my mind is search). 

Still, this is a pretty smart and simple hack to reclaim your day and your sanity. Sadly, I just don’t believe I can live in that mildly disconnected world. I have other plans.

This is the teaser page for Mailbox, a new product by the Orchestra team. I can’t say too much yet, but I’ve seen what they’re up to (we are investors, after all). It’s potentially game changing when it comes to email. And those who follow my email saga closely will know that I would not say that lightly. 

They have a bit more about the process of evolving from Orchestra to Mailbox here. The best excerpt:

At first the idea seemed crazy. Email felt like this massive thing that startups don’t mess with. “This path is paved with corpses,” one friend told us. To be really blunt, we were scared. But as we explored the idea and the capacity of our team to tackle it, we felt emboldened. We realized we could apply everything we had learned about building fast, friendly, mobile collaboration tools to the inbox. We can’t replace email, but we can change how we interact with it.

Bingo. It’s not about replacing email. That has been tried and tried and tried and failed and failed and failed. It’s about changing the way we perceive email. 

Mailbox is not quite done yet, but it will be worth the wait. Trust me.

Sparrow Flies The Coop

Bittersweet

I first wrote about Sparrow in October 2010, gushing about the native Gmail experience it offered to Mac users. And I continued closely tracking its progression as both an interested writer, but also as a dedicated user. It was the first app that truly made Gmail beautiful on a Mac (and more recently, on iOS). 

Along the way, I got to know founder Dom Leca a bit, so I’m very excited for him and his team today. There is no question that they will be able to tackle email problems on a whole new scale within Google, and I sincerely hope they do. We all need them to.

On the other hand, it sucks that development of Sparrow itself is stopping (though it will continue to be offered an supported). Thank god they got that Retina version out just in time for the new MacBook Pros. I use Sparrow on a daily basis to pound through email at a speed that Gmail on the web simply cannot handle.

That’s the thing: while Sparrow was beautiful and offered useful features like Facebook graph integration, it really moved things forward in terms of the UX of email. It’s a very hard problem because there are protocols and norms that have existed for decades that you have to work with. But Sparrow abstracted a lot of that and made it wonderful to do something as simple as reply with one click. 

But at least Google seems well aware about Sparrow’s passionate user base and is thinking about why they were successful. Unprompted, they sent me the following statement this morning: “The Sparrow team has always put their users first by focusing on building a seamlessly simple and intuitive interface for their email client. We look forward to bringing them aboard the Gmail team, where they’ll be working on new projects.”

Congrats Dom, the Sparrow team, and Google. Now go fix email.

Sweet Jesus, we finally have functional push mail for Gmail on iOS. I’m not talking the wonky port-through-Exchange nonsense — I’m talking full Gmail messages sent to your phone in realtime. And I’m not talking a stupid little badges to let you know you have a message, I’m talking full-on message excerpts.

The app itself still mainly stinks, but I don’t plan to ever open except to search. Now I’ll get a notification, decided if it can wait or not, and then open Mail or Sparrow. 

Email: Archive It All. Immediately.

A week ago, I came home after a long night of drinking and wanted to vomit. It wasn’t the whiskey. It was the email. 

I had been gone approximately 6 hours at an event and subsequent after-party. I didn’t check my email the entire time. When I came home, I had over 50 new emails in my inbox (this doesn’t include the ones I automatically archive thanks to Gmail filters). 50-some emails all of which I needed to take action on in some form or another.

Fuck.

Undoubtedly aided by the aforementioned drinks, I hit “Select All” and debated hitting “Delete”. Not just for those 50-some emails. But for all 50,000+ that were sitting un-archived in my inbox. Then I thought better of it. Instead, I hit “Archive”.

Best thing I’ve ever done. 

A week into my “Archive All” world, my inbox is pretty fantastic. Obviously, I’m not the first person to do this, but I was highly skeptical that it would work since I figured that after the initial purge, messages would just start piling up again.

But at least for me, it’s more of a mental thing. It’s essentially out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I should have known this would be the case since I’m also obsessed with clearing my RSS reader every night (even though I barely use it anymore) and am a slave to clearing red Push Notification dots on the iPhone/iPad. But I was still terrified to mess with the email flow I had built up over the years.

Previously, I had tried to quit email for an entire month. That was also great. But the problem was that when I got back on the wagon, nothing had actually changed. I had missed a month’s worth of email, and people got ahold of me other ways, but once I was back on email, I was right back into my old habits.

But archiving all my mail forced me to change habits. I was sure there would be something I would miss or forget. But the reality is that there was no way I was ever going to get to all 5,000 things I had starred anyway. I was kidding myself. And I was creating a sense of dread for myself on a daily basis when I looked at my inbox and saw all those goddamn stars. 

By archiving all the old mail, I have essentially turned Gmail into a big, searchable repository for email. I upgraded my account to 80 GB of storage (I was at the 30 GB limit). If there’s something I need to reference or remember, I can pull it up easily with a search. But the flow is now to archive everything at least once a week (and ideally sooner). It’s all about admitting to myself that if I don’t get to it by then, I’m never going to get to it.

Again, I was highly skeptical, but at least for now, this works. Yes, this means I’m not responding to a lot of emails that come my way. But I wasn’t anyway. Information still has a funny way of finding a way to command your attention if you need to take action.

For many, email is now the master communication channel. But it’s actually a pretty poor one in this age of mobile computing. Email needs to beaten down into just another channel of flowing information.

Read most of it. Respond to some of it. Keep all of it. But hide it. Then forget about it. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

A wonderfully exhaustive review of the just-released Sparrow for iPhone by Federico Viticci. 

I’ve been testing out the app for a while now, and it’s pure gold. As you’re all well aware, I despise email, but Sparrow at least makes it look good and behave well. If you want a good laugh, look at Sparrow side-by-side with Google’s native Gmail app.

The only real downside of the app is the lack of Push Notifications. But they’re honest about why: it’s hard to do it in a secure way. Really hard. Meanwhile, Apple hasn’t yet dished out APIs for the type of background sniffing that would be needed to get this to work without routing every email through Sparrow’s own servers. 

But the team is hopeful that this will change eventually. For now, you’ll just have to settle for a great-looking email app.

Still Fucking Hate Email

Fred Wilson took some time this morning to go off against email. Clearly annoyed, he writes:

I write these posts occasionally to let people know. The result is hundreds of comments about how I can make email work better for me. Please don’t leave those comments. I don’t want to make email work better for me. I don’t want to hire an assistant to do email for me. I don’t want to try some new magical app that will make email better for me.

Amen.

I complain often about email as well and everyone comes out of the woodwork with some idea for how to fix my problem. The reality is that there is no fix. Trying something else is an even bigger waste of time.

Wilson says he devotes about three hours a day to email and he still can’t nearly get through it all. I’m in roughly the same boat; some days more, some days less. It’s also a boat I put myself in when I left my job as a writer (tons of email) to become a VC (shit tons of email). 

The only real “solution” is to change the way people think about email. It needs to be considered more of a stream than an inbox. That is, it needs to be more like Twitter and less like a to-do list.

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