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All you need is e-mail, e-mail. E-mail is all you need. (monkeymace.com)
139 points by thebdmethod on May 28, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 118 comments

Email has a lot of warts besides its obvious graces, especially when you look at the back-end of how emails are actually stored and transferred and authenticated. So I think we as programmers are naturally drawn to the idea of developing the email-killer. The central problem with the dreamers seems to be that they're not dreaming deeply enough.

Email is a communications multitool which leverages the whole human subconscious to effect its various uses: a human is supposed to know whether this is a "your boss demands that you do this" email or a "your friend wants you to look at her cute cat" email or "your uncle is ranting about fluoride in the water again" email. Most email killers do not and cannot eliminate this mental overhead. Graham only says "other people should be able to add to my todo list" -- he's not killing email, he's considering an email-aware todo list. That's very common. Skype is not an email killer precisely because it doesn't dream big enough: it is a realtime messaging protocol which hit it big because it worked with video. Trello is not an email killer precisely because it's for organizing groups. RSS is not an email killer because it only solves the limited problem of keeping aware of new content.

Email does all of these tasks -- poorly, but it does them. If you want to really kill email, you need to offer the core functionality effortlessly. Email II would understand "circles" of friends automatically, so that there is only an "inbox" for those people who are contacting you for the very first time. Like syndication, Email II would host the content on the publisher's web server to be downloaded whenever the client wants -- this has spam-deterrent effects, since the network doesn't take responsibility for the content. It would hopefully allow us to unify mailing lists. We can protect privacy with automatic cryptography; "chris::example.com" can stand for a public key which is stored on the example.com machines. The email killer needs to be good at segmenting messages so that we can say "This is the text of my invitation to a wedding, but it also comes with a standard-appointment-form where I describe where and when it is, so that it can be rapidly added to your 'upcoming dates' in the relevant social circle." (Since this must merge with dates and todo-lists, presumably example.com contains its own list of stuff which chris::example.com has stored for his own use.)

And I want to at this point admit defeat: because I think even those ideas are not daring enough. The email killer is probably going to have to do even more than all of that, and my own imagination becomes limited.

I have Gnus and Emacs on my computer because I have myself convinced that with enough macros I could create a completely automated version of my digital self. I imagine it would use a private/local NNTP server for all my notes, documentation, and organizational reference across computers, and emails would handle the communicate with the digital world even to the point of creating snapshots of online articles and posting comments on sites like Techcrunch under the articles using some combination of Jabber/cURL and my public Facebook profile.

But I just never get around to learning elisp.

Indeed, that email has everything inside is as much its strength as its weakness. It is as unlikely to go away as it is unlikely to remain unfiltered and unchanged.

Where the "killing" begins and the extension begins is basically fuzzy.

You could create an "Email II" that had present day email as its transmission layer or which had some other transmission layer as it's base. There's a wide area of innovation still available here.

This. It's email clients that are broken, not email.

For example, the most imaginative thing we can do with long email threads appears to be to flatten them and render them as a list.

Not to mention filtering and categorizing: in gmail, you can't even check in a filter if someone is in your contacts -- your gmail contacts -- let alone whether they fall into a particular contact group.

I feel like that's weirdly true and false.

Yes, email clients are "broken". It is "easy to see" that fixing them is the key to really useful communication.

The weird thing is that any time you get one of these "broken" mediums, its users nonetheless become adapted to it. Even the stupidest original behavior becomes a part of a common, even socially, understood medium and changing it thus becomes harder.

An old girlfriend of mine was not terribly computer literate but understood the trick of clicking on an email link in Internet Explorer, having an outlook express window come up and then copying the resulting email-address to her webmail account to send an email. Once she learned this trick, she was far less concerned about the round-about-clunkiness involved in the whole process than I would be. It was just "how computers worked" and a simpler process she didn't know would quite possibly confuse her. She probably wouldn't even know that Outlook Express was an email client itself, for example.

That's true. But I think this argues that GMail and Outlook will remain stagnant, not that email will stagnant.

Yes, Email might be ugly on the backend but that matters none at all. The client is obviously what is broken here, we are using the same client paradigm as when a handful of people had an email address! At the very least a better email client should do this:

1) Categorize notifications. Use the common web services as a base, and then look for obvious signs of repeated messages of the same type.

2) Prioritize people who are in your contact list. In fact this functionality should be broken out as a separate app. Actually, the same app that we current only use for text messages. I could rant on this for days; why in the hell are apps separated by what protocol they use rather than what the use case is? Ridiculous!

Spot on, this is what we do on www.post.fm (sorry for the plug) - organize your email around people & organizations, and then offer distinct user experiences based on various use cases (going through notifications, participating in threads or groups or chatting one-on-one with people you know).

This HN post shows how passionate people still are about email. I have to admit reading the comments has been like reading through my own thoughts for the past 2 years we've been working on this. I can't wait to share what we've done with all of you.

PS Email is indeed great. The protocols - not so much. Unfortunately most email clients are limited to using IMAP as the email API, which in some ways limits what they can do with email. Hotmail started as (and probably still is) just an html client for IMAP. So the UI is built around IMAP functions - get a list of headers, etc. Forget running sophisticated SQL queries against your inbox, the user experience is dictated by the API designers - never a good choice.

I requested an invite (same name as I go by here), would love to check out your service.

Email II

That's the key right there, I think. The email-killer is not some wild off-the-wall idea with a zany name that tries to pretend email never happened; it is email II. It is still email- just, the email of the future.

Come to think of it, you see this trend in a lot of tech history. The successor is a descendant, rather than usurper.

Email III

We've got to give Gmail the credit of Email II. Think about how much better Gmail was than what existed prior. Would you ever work at an institution that didn't use threading? Never!

I'll be honest - XMPP fits this description pretty well, at least as far as I read it right now. Most clients don't seem to understand this but that seems tractable.

Outside a work environment we already have e-mail killer — it is called facebook.

Facebook is a productivity killer, but it does POP email as well.

> Why build a new messaging product when the basic functionality of email combined with a little effort from the user can achieve the same result?

Well, to begin with, users don't want to expend even a little bit of effort. Isn't that why everyone is trying to minimize friction in the sign-up process?

I agree that e-mail, as a protocol, is a powerful tool that is often misunderstood. But we really need e-mail clients that allow us to keep track of a large number of threads without getting lost of feeling swamped. Gmail tries to do this to some extent, but it's far from perfect.

You'd be surprised at the effort that users will and won't engage in.

I know plenty of utterly non-technical users who have strong opinions about what are the uses of an email list versus the uses of a web forum versus the uses of a Facebook group page.

Which means, to me, that on the one hand, these folks would be interested in a new messaging approach if it was strongly distinguished from the functionality of email and on the other hand, these users quite likely wouldn't bother with something that seem too much like email. Essential, it seems like average people are up for multiple communications mediums but treat each medium as kind of a given, not something that's going to evolve.

I'd be interested in ways of dealing with this.

> average people are up for multiple communications mediums but treat each medium as kind of a given, not something that's going to evolve.

People have been thinking like that for a long time about a lot of things. They have strong opinions about when to use a car vs. truck vs. minivan, or when to take the bus vs. the subway. They also have strong opinions about the purpose of each room in their home and each piece of furniture in their office. This is OK because most of these things don't change very often, and when they do (e.g. a new subway route or a major renovation), the change is obvious. Today's technology, on the other hand, changes very quickly and in subtle ways. It's hard to catch up with all of that, so the inertia becomes more noticeable. I shared a Dropbox folder with my father a while ago, but he still sends me large files as email attachments.

I logged on to say exactly this. If for a product, the benefit is overwhelmed by the cost, then the user is irrational to use such a product. Email is _difficult_ to share things appropriately. A hybrid client, like gmail, is IMHO much better.

I've wondered a lot about why e-mail isn't used more as a backend for different services. But as far as I can tell, messaging products proliferate because their creators want to create profitable products rather than distributed protocols.

E-mail is a pretty good group of protocols for distributing arbitrary messages between different locations on the Internet. It's easy to imagine how all sorts of messaging and social network products could be implemented as a specialized e-mail client with a good user experience. Their forms might be slightly different than they have now, but they'd serve approximately the same consumer purpose.

For example, you could build a social networking "client" with e-mail as a backend. Status updates, photos, etc. would be distributed to all your contacts via email, and the client would produce a "timeline" based on the data in its mailbox, without ever showing the user the original messages.

But you give up a lot of control that way, and it's harder to monetize. What developers want (and users too, to be honest) is a centralized service that they can control, mine data with, and sell products or show ads. A distributed protocol, while in some ways more powerful (and less dependent on a fallible central authority!), doesn't achieve the real business aims.

Email is decentralized to us. We have the very specific skils, attitudes, and patience required to buy a domain name, rent a VPS or dedicated server and configure SSH public keys, Postfix/Courier, DNS, SPF, DKIM, and keep it up to date and patched, audit it to make sure it stays secure, and detect/respond to intrusions. And even then, unless you are going to roll your own emergency power, multiple redundant HVAC, and fire supression, as well as shell out hundreds of dollars a month for significant upload bandwidth to your house or apartment, your data and encryption keys are still in the physical possession of a corporate datacenter.

Email is most certainly not decentralized to anyone outside the IT world. They can, with extreme difficulty, move between providers, but they are still dependent on a provider.

Email decreases the volume of users that mediocre players can own (Google does email better than anyone else, so it gets a significant share of the market) but users are still going to be owned by someone.

>unless you are going to roll your own emergency power, multiple redundant HVAC, and fire supression, as well as shell out hundreds of dollars a month for significant upload bandwidth to your house or apartment, your data and encryption keys are still in the physical possession of a corporate datacenter.

You don't need significant upload bandwidth for email. Or download bandwidth either. (Unless you're expecting constant DDOS attacks.) Or emergency services. The HVAC might be a good idea.

You could have made your point a lot better by just saying that 99.9% of users will never set up a home server to do email. Which is the truth.

You probably should be expecting consistant DDOS attacks, or at least aggressive scanning.

OP failed to mention setting up DKIM and SPF as well.

True. But residential bandwidth is just one of many reasons why mainstream users aren't going to actually own their own email anytime soon.

"messaging products proliferate because their creators want to create profitable products rather than distributed protocols."

That's a bingo.

There's a chicken and egg problem to this. If you do what you suggest, you are going to flood the user's inbox and although you will clean it up in your client, the user is also going to have a standard email client that notifies them constantly about your messages.

We need a transitory client that is better than the one we have today, but still is the only email client you use. It would do a better job of categorizing and prioritizing your messages. When the user gets used to this, they might be willing to accepting dropping general purpose email clients all together.

I don't even want to make the user drop general-purpose email clients; I just think that email, as a back-end distributed messaging protocol, is more understood and battle-tested than just about anything a startup is likely to invent.

Two possibilities that occurred to me:

1) Your service just uses email as a backend messaging protocol, and provides a new "user@myservice.com" mailbox to all users. Advantage is that you can put all your logic in the client, and just run a mail server.

2) Better: include an email header along the lines of "Intended-For-Application: MyService", and encourage general-purpose email clients to auto-archive these messages out of the inbox.

But yeah, it's just the kernel of an idea, and there are tons of problems with it.

You would almost certainly have to use option 1.

Option 2 includes such problems as:

A. A random selection of end-user's email services have spam filtering that some of your app's messages can't get around. To the end user who never actually sees the emails (because you simply use them as message passing items) this will simply seem like your shoddy service flaking out.

B. An end user's personal email service goes down, which has nothing to do with you but renders your service unusable to them, again as far as they are concerned, your service is simply shoddy and unreliable.

C. In the event that the end user's email service does go down, and they know about it, they are likely to turn to a secondary protocol to get in touch with people, only to find that your service also isn't working because it relies on the same protocol.

Frankly, I can see several problems with option 1 as well. Excessive bandwidth overhead from unnecessary headers, the spam problem inherent to email, all the parsing you'd have to do to extract data from the text body. I'm not really sure what the advantages of using email are if you're just going to be running a single mail server for all users of your service.

Email is a terrible, terrible set of protocols and formats. We should really move to something less horrible.

There are several social network projects built on top of XMPP, though, which is a lot less terrible.

>A distributed protocol, while in some ways more powerful (and less dependent on a fallible central authority!), doesn't achieve the real business aims.

Then don't build one as a business.


E-mail is incredibly underutilized as a technology.

One could make an argument the majority of instagram's (of course not the filters) functionality could be handled by e-mail, but the "perceived need" to use apps on the smartphone that you purchased for a large percentage of your monthly income but the experience of using the app is difficult to discount.

Another point worth considering is that much of the functionality associated with Path is available in Facebook if you want to play around with settings, but for some reason Path still seems relevant.

It'd take a long time to type in those 20 email addresses every time you snap a photo on your vacation.

Any decent email client should do autocomplete.

Even if that's not the case, this is something the client should handle.

And then you remember you forgot the 21st one, and your choices are either to email the original 20 plus the added address, or email the 21st one separately, thus creating a one-off thread.

Or even better, use address book groups.

I've thought about writing this post so many times.

E-mail is not broken, but we'll continually try to convince ourselves that our inabilities to be collaborative and communicate properly is because we're not given the right medium to do so. This is bullshit. People who are terrible at communication will continue to be terrible at communication regardless of what tool they use.

The hammer isn't broken, the carpenter is. Fix the carpenter.

EDIT: I should add - I see many tools that try to replace e-mail aren't largely trying to fix the problems with communication, but rather they are trying to assign accountability. This is great for bosses (or "controllers"), but not necessarily great for everyone. I've simplified this too much and could go into way more detail if I had the time.

I agree with you here.

My point of writing this post was the illustrate that in the pursuit of ultimate convenience we sometimes loose sight of the importance doing committing to new behaviors or overcoming our own laziness.

And technology should not enable laziness, or replace effort, but rather elevate and extend and magnify existing effort.

It's a very good point, and reminds of the "Confessions of a Recovering Lifehacker" post: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4012852

It's worth doing some approximate cost/gain math now & again.... E.g., my core goal is to better communicate about important things with family/friends. To that end I have... spent about 30 hours of my spare time this month implementing a solution to save me 30 seconds per email, and about 1 hour actually writing 5 actual emails. QED.

Side note: in your message here (and twice in the blog post), you're using the verb "loose" (means "set free") when you mean "lose" (means "fail to retain").

I like the formula you invoke here.

Looking back, if I spent the same amount of time messaging and communicating with people that I spent building an app to facilitating future communication I would be much better off, thought more thoughts, and grown closer to more people.

(Also, thanks for keeping me honest with the "loose" typos, they've been corrected.

Email is awesome, certainly. But if everyone actually started a mass-email to all their friends about every little topic they post to a Facebook status update, I'd call 'em pretty damned rude abusing my email inbox like that and my email client would need even better filters than it already has to fight the commercial spam.

Experiments to find things better than email will mostly fail, but I think we still need more experiments. There must be something better than all that spam for a start.

You point to the #1 biggest wonderful feature of email.

Sending email is an act that incurs responsibility. WHY are we sending all this shit around? Email makes it clear. I have made a decision that you should spend your time reading and understanding this text. If that's rude, tell me and I'll stop.

This article strikes a chord because email is about communication instead of endless "sharing," broadcasting, forwarding, signalling.

I'm awash in a sea of tweets and notifications but when I see a familiar name as the sender of an actual goddamn email, then I feel reality existing again.

I have a friend who can't stop dreaming about hypothetical advances in social networking that will let us do all kinds of wonderful things, but it'll never be good enough, convenient enough — no technology will ever do the real work of social caring, no shiny app will ever let humans communicate in a way that's easy and non-messy.

There's some kind of consumerism-type ideology around social networks and apps that works like that of beauty magazines and television. TV is boring so Facebook is the new Friends.

It's all so happy, creative, wonderful. There should be a social network that says "fuck you" to all the cutesy glitter on the top of the Maslow pyramid — that's only about, say, "sharing" expressions of the dull lethargy that comes from exhausting oneself with work or work-seeking in a crisis economy.

Sorry for ranting, but this deeply-rooted nausea w/r/t the social web is something that doesn't come out clearly for me all the time, and when it does I feel like I should channel it to get some affect going, because everything is so tediously pastel and we need to change shit up.

Hi. Long-time lurker here; I just created an HN account to reply to you. Your post expresses some of the things I've been feeling about social media that I haven't been able to express very well myself (I had to look up "Maslow pyramid"). The sort of unease and nausea, the whole thing just feels somehow creepy and wrong.

I deactivated my Facebook account long ago because of this feeling. I think what it boils down to is that I don't think I should know so much stuff about my friends, family, co-workers, etc without having obtained that knowledge by directly interacting with them in meaningful ways over long periods of time. The Facebook model appears to let me know people better, but it's in a shallow, passive way and encourages me to conceptualize people as caricatures, assembled from a handful of their most obvious or outstanding personality traits. I realize this stuff has been around for a long time, but FB turbo-charges it, and I feel like it's an extremely poor way to "know" people.

The really messed up part is that while the effects Facebook seems to have are often anti-social (think of how many times you've been out with someone and they're too busy checking status updates on their phone to carry on a real, actual conversation), people are labelled anti-social for not participating.

>The really messed up part is that while the effects Facebook seems to have are often anti-social (think of how many times you've been out with someone and they're too busy checking status updates on their phone to carry on a real, actual conversation), people are labelled anti-social for not participating.

Your certainly not the first person to point this out. [0]

[0]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_%28novel%29

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is, that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters. It requires more than a day's devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.

(Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle[1], 1854)

[1] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Life_Without_Principle

I agree that your points do apply to the majority of facebook users. However, I think fb can be very useful as a social messaging/event calendar if applied properly. Without sacrificing the importance of direct social interaction.

To me it makes me wonder if the application or the popular belief of usage is the problem.

"email is about communication instead of endless "sharing," broadcasting, forwarding, signalling."

I'm in the minority, but Facebook literally depresses me (and by literally, I literally mean literally), and I quit long ago. All these words, and no communication. It's like I'm in a crowd, and the only thing I know about the other people in the crowd is what their Tshirts say.

I communicate by email with most of the people I knew on Facebook, and I'm very happy with that communication channel. Because it's actual communication, rather than mere display.

This is also why HN is my preferred news source. Besides the focused yet eclectic aggregation, the comments are actual communication, not just "regulars" on a typical newspaper's comment forum insulting each other. It's been said many times, but I get as much or more from the comments as I do from the articles, not least because I have to engage my brain to comment.

I think you nailed it. My feeling is that if its not worth the time or consideration to send someone a email then why bother sharing it at all. The mindless broadcasting/signaling with no real intent seems cheap and not terribly interesting.

I see the value perhaps in Facebook as a a glorified catalog of your interests and liked content, as a canonical record of your browsing.

The content I like best in my Facebook news feed are links to content on the web.

There is this one girl I barely know, who regularly posts the coolest and most obscure old music videos from the 50s and 60s. To me she is the ideal Facebook friend.

You may enjoy the following TED Talk on the consequences of ``sharing'': http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html

In social networks, companies are not trying to fix email or group communication because its broken. They are trying to produce users for their specific applications. If they use Email as a substrate for communication, they have no user. They end up being just a software vendor.

It helps to remember that the first social networks (See: Usenet) were built out of email.

EDIT: All email needs is the ability to display information like the web can. Properly formatted and threaded.

So are some of the later ones. Twitter built a multi-billion dollar business by duplicating the functionality of email and listserv in a proprietary service.

Listserv had an SMS-oriented design? It automatically made every user their own independent channel that other users could choose to subscribe to?

I don't use Twitter, but saying it's just email/listserv is rather silly. Also, it's only a mutli-billion dollar business by investment; it doesn't generate even 1bn in revenue.

Email-to-SMS gateways have been around a long time. And sure, an email provider could set up a service that automatically gives every email account their own listserv. I'd agree that Twitter's valuation is arguable, but the investor consensus is that it's a multi-billion dollar business, whatever the revenue is.

in what sense was Usenet built out of email? only thing that comes to mind is re-using some of the syntax of RFC 822.

I think it was more at a conceptual level rather than technical. It's like sending a e-mail to a public mailing list that anyone can view, join or reply to.

I know all the people pushing for social networks will disagree, but I think email can be fixed, just like static web pages have been fixed to do asynchronous JavaScript to provide dynamic web experiences.

I think the problem is the cure is much worse than the disease. The cures of using social network tools is often an enclosed, controlled network such as Twitter or Facebook, which puts control of the network in the hands of few.

Instead of trying to replace email, I think we should "fix" it rather than trying to replace it. Some advocate using Web/REST/HTTP to replace email; I think email isn't that doomed.

Remember, the popularity of email is because anybody can start an email service. Nobody can just use Facebook or Twitter; you have to have the approval of an inner circle authority. Imagine if every Web site required MPAA or RIAA control, and they prevented even non-infringing material online using SOPA!

>just like static web pages have been fixed to do asynchronous JavaScript to provide dynamic web experiences

If by that you are trying to imply that email needs more awful HTML junk and other "features", stop. Now. That would finally destroy email, not fix it.

I couldn't agree more. I deal with a large number of older people on a daily basis as part of my volunteer work. Getting these folk to use the Internet in any way is painful. For example, I send out these PDF reports once a week. It's the same template every time but for accounting purposes, it has to be done. I wrote a Python script to generate those for me and I stick them up on a simple website on S3. The script them emails everyone to let them know the report is available and that they can download it. It includes a link to the report and to the website with all the other reports. These guys absolutely cannot open a browser and view the PDF in the browser. If it's not an attachment to the email, they don't know what to do.

TLDR --- Email is great. It's so simple that even non-techies get it.

Lately my industry has hit a new trend that I've fallen in love. Basically, each night all the departments on a live performance receive performance reports, reports listing what went well and what went wrong in the performance, as well as start times, run times, audience size, etc...

In the olden days, these were posted or hand distributed. Then over time they moved to being emailed out as PDF attachments, still formatted to perfect beauty as the old printed copies. Now more and more, the attachment is forgone and the data is just typed directly into the body of the email. Sure it doesn't have the glitz of a pristine PDF with the production font and header, but with one glance I can see the numbers I want to see from my iPhone.

I find it funny that it took us until mobile devices to get to the point where we are using email as intended, instead of as a vector for attaching PDFs.

Not to mention pointless Word documents, "templates" that include background images and difficult-to-read colors and fonts, signatures with embedded artwork, screensful of pointless legalese, and top-posted histories of conversations almost, if not entirely unrelated to the present message.

In other words, it's not at all clear to me how additional features would help decrease email's signal-to-noise problems when users themselves choose to create the noise.

Simple. Effective.

All I was doing was avoiding doing the work, the real effort of producing the content that actually mattered. I was hiding from honest sharing with the conviction that the tools were not good enough yet.

This is a great insight. Building the platform is sometimes only half the battle -- getting users to produce the content that makes the product interesting , valuable (and eventually profitable) seems like the challenge these days. Because the further entrenched people become to the platform that houses their "content", the more loyal they become. Facebook is the most obvious example, and a lot of Facebook communications read like watered-down email OK for public consumption.

Mail is broken in many ways. Because there is no authentication and thus forged from addresses, error messages can't be returned. Relays are allowed to modify mails which invalidates hashes and signatures. Attached and included documents are encoded in base64. ...

The main usage problem is abuse of this communication channel. While our email addresses should be public so that anyone in the world may contact us, we are forced to use hidden emails to protect ourselves. This Is the reason of the success of messaging system limited to friends. There is much less abuse.

The problem was known with fax, and will happen with phones if the phone call price drops to zero.

This reminds me of something most new communication media seem not to realize: no matter how fancy your new thing is, not everyone will want to try it initially, so for God's sake make it bridge to email. Otherwise it will become a ghetto.

I don't think the Wave people understood this; if they had, Wave might have turned out differently.

Asana, on the other hand, made a big deal out of this.

Making something bridge to email doesn't seem terribly difficult. SMTP is; as the name would imply, simple. (At least it seems simple.)

To be a true bridge you need to be bidirectional: to do that you'd need IMAP, not SMTP. IMAP is a bit of a stateful mess of a protocol, unfortunately.

E-mail has a culture around it that doesn't work for many tasks. It's called "inbox zero". Basically for most e-mail users they attempt to clear out their inbox to zero new messages every time they go to e-mail. This means if you want to do things that require thought over a period of time you'll almost always have someone using e-mail the wrong way for the task.

I gave up on keeping on tidy inbox long ago. I have 16,794 unread emails in my Gmail account. I feel like keeping my email organized would easily become a full time job.

I am curious about anyone currently trying to build a communication tool, and their argument for why it is a better solution than email.

I started linkjs[1] so I could create an extensible inbox/social app that supports multiple services and interfaces. The idea is to build tool environments around communication, much like the environments we already have around processing (e.g. the unix shell).

Email will be one of the services the comm environment integrates, so it's more of an extension than a replacement.

1. https://github.com/pfraze/linkjs

For most users that just need to communicate regarding a specific item it is much quicker to comment on that and that alone with tools like http://postfrenzy.com.

Having to deal with threads and multiple topics in single email messages for most users often results in a degradation of the conversation, quickly.

The problem is that email is so broken, you could sort of fix it, but people have been trying for years and it's easier to start again. For example we still have these problems:

- No proof that people are who they say they are, we have PGP/GPG but no one uses it.

- Related to the above, I can't control who can send me email, people use different email addresses and any address can be faked anyway.

- No accepted way to post short messages, people still post long email with big disclaimers and/or adverts at the bottom

- Poor email client support for sending/receiving large numbers of pictures, with thumbnails and full versions

- Lack of any real semantic support tags, share a single link, geo information etc.

- No way to public display of your timeline (i.e. twitter)

- No obvious way to have all contact's photos against emails [seems to be coming in now somehow, not sure how really]

- Inability to remove content you accidentally sent

- User expectations that email works in a certain way and doesn't need to change.

> - No proof that people are who they say they are, we have PGP/GPG but no one uses it.

Do you have that proof with any other communication medium? You have some level of authentication provided by the service provider, sure (e.g. with the phone), but it's far from perfect and unspoofable.

- Related to the above, I can't control who can send me email, people use different email addresses and any address can be faked anyway.

> Same problem with phone calls, letters, faxes. Doesn't mean those systems are broken.

- No accepted way to post short messages, people still post long email with big disclaimers and/or adverts at the bottom

There are other protocols for this. I think it's fine that email doesn't solve everything.

> - Poor email client support for sending/receiving large numbers of pictures, with thumbnails and full versions

Sounds like a client problem.

> - Lack of any real semantic support tags, share a single link, geo information etc.

This is a problem with open protocols. Not everyone wants to share the same things you do.

Of these issues, I only see #1 and #4 as real. Some of them perhaps you could elaborate on? What do you mean by #3? I send short messages all the time. I just write a short message and hit send. Why would you even want #6? Email is designed as a private mechanism, this seems to go against the very reason I use email...

Most people don't do #3 and without tools either limiting (twitter) or coaxing you (facebook) you get big run on messages, which you don't want to read.

You want #6 because many people are trying to share you thoughts with everyone, and the post is titled "All you need is e-mail, e-mail. E-mail is all you need."

I may be in the minority, but I don't understand why most people on twitter wish to consume most tweets. Outside of a synchronous or semi-synchronous (e.g. IRC) conversation, It's pretty hard to say anything worth saying in 140 characters. I hate twitter and I hate tl;dr as a meme. HN as a community tends to encourage longer posts for the same reason; they're more likely to be interesting.

It works better for sharing content, but I don't usually want to see all content that a particular person wants to share. Other mechanisms work better for getting a list of content to consume: RSS offers all the content from a particular source, and sites like HN and reddit show recent content that a particular community finds interesting.

The only thing I see twitter as good for is disseminating facts to a large audience when a non-internet-capable phone is the the only communication tool available. It has served that function a number of times during war, natural disasters and other breakdowns of civil infrastructure. Even so, I'd rather consume someone else's aggregation of the facts rather than track down which users to follow myself and unfollow them after the event is over. That's what reporters (including bloggers) are for.

This is a timely article for me as I am just about to launch a email startup called Sendicate that adds tools to simplify and empower email-based communication. Another way of looking at it is like a content publishing app for email. For those interested here are some more thoughts on what I am building http://www.chadyj.com/tagged/sendicate

Email certainly has some issues but it is also infinitely flexible and powerful and drives a lot of our day to day interaction with the internet. I am surprised that there is such a drive to re-invent email when a few specialized tools that add value to email will solve many use cases without re-inventing the wheel.

Email is OK as a communication tool. But companies use it as a task/to-do list and to work together on tasks.

Email is terrible to achieve this. You will end up with lots of emails and multiple versions of the same documents...

That is why I wish someone fix email! :)

I don't think that's a reason to "fix email". Rather, it's a reason to use the right tool for the job. If you need a to-do list, use an app that does to-do lists well. If you need to keep track of changes to documents, use a version control system. What's needed, of course, is a tool that integrates all these other tools into a manageable workflow. But that's not "fixing email", either, it's just another tool.

I agree with this. The business context is really the one where email is most broken.

Tools like Basecamp and Trello do a good job with project management, but they aren't a 100% substitute for all the various functions of email. I sometimes think that a hybrid between email and a forum/bulletin board would be the best way to manage complex communication, instead of convoluted cc lists...

You do realise that you've just described Notes, right? If it were a new product, without all the baggage of having to be backward-compatible to the late paleolithic (R2 in '93) and with a UI consistent with everything else on the host OS, folks'd be all over it.

Email is not the problem here.

The problem is people doing task management/version control with the wrong tool. So how do you get managers (in my case the are called professors) to use proper tools? They already know how to use email and they are convinced that it is sufficient.

Maybe a simplified bug/issue tracker for task management?

Maybe something like Dropbox or Time Machine for version control?

If that's what you're using it for, someone has fixed email:


I'm using Trello! :) It is great if you don't have lots of leads :)

Maybe in outlook...aren't most of those problems solved by gmail? :)

How does gmail solve this problem?

I agree with a lot of the points here, Email in itself isn't broken. I've spent the last 2 months studying users email habits, who sends what?, what do they receive?, what are the conversations like?, how is the platform being used? etc.. the conclusion is simple email is incredibly personal each single users works in their own way.

The problem is where these habits collide, the way I receive an email from you doesn't match how I'd construct and send an email, therefore whatever I receive is going to cause me a problem.

I met a nice girl who went back to her home country and we exchanged email addresses. But the emails we sent each other ended up in the spam folder. This is unacceptable. Email is unreliable. As much as I hate Facebook, it actually works for these situations. Email is ok as a secondary communications tool, but I would never build anything that relies on it.

> This is unacceptable. Email is unreliable.

Isn't this a spam-filter problem? How does a bad spam-filter imply that e-mail's unreliable?

Did you even __attempt__ to configure your spam-filter(s)?

I think the broken part of email exists in business communication, in my experience it's grossly overused. It becomes an endless todo list that requires processing (eg, response, forward, assign, done, etc). This is inefficient and distracts us from our primary functions.

Email, as well as IRC. Because email doesn't handle real-time spontaneous casual online conversations.

Twitter is a poor way of doing it, and Facebook is just email + shallow egotistical dopamine hacks.

yeah yeah,email is the original great killer app of the internet. But as far as collaboration, it is full of problems and for the average user just causes problems and confusion and makes people bend over backwards to try and keep up. All the new developments are about taking it to a new level...beyond the original idea. Meaning less silos, easier many-to-many and one-to-many etc...

I don't agree, even if Gmail brought a lot to emails (threads and antispam) it's still a problem that, in my opinion, facebook message tackles.

I guess the author forgot to add "... and oh yeah, blogs too" to the title.

I can't help thinking about Google Wave :)

Email is not great. My biggest problem with email is that it's unreliable. There have been so many times where I'd send an email and have it never even reach its destination. I'm not talking about a legitimate message being marked as spam and tucked away in some folder, but not even delivered and my email server isn't notified of this shenanigans (I'm looking at you, mac.com and gmail.com). This is I'm sure because some server down the chain messed up somewhere.

How can you track this down? There is no way to even know if your email made it to a person's inbox (like a kind of forced "received receipt" -- I don't care if they read it yet).

> There have been so many times where I'd send an email and have it never even reach its destination

This is easily explained if you were hosting your own Postfix or something. There are a significant number of hoops that legitimate email senders must jump through in order to ensure their email goes through properly. DKIM signing, SPF records, rDNS, etc. These are some of the ways for gmail and apple identify you as a legit sender as opposed to a spammer.

> I'm not talking about a legitimate message being marked as spam and tucked away in some folder, but not even delivered and my email server isn't notified of this shenanigans

In general, ISPs won't want to let spammers know they're are bulking email. That's why you aren't told.

I suspect that my host's email servers are at least partially to blame for some of these issues. Like a bad egg or two signed up and screwed everyone else over. From what I've gathered Amazon SES is a reliable alternative since they apparently jump through the hoops for you. That might be where I'm turning to for a solution.

It makes sense that they wouldn't notify you if they tanked your email because they think it's "super spam" or something. It is frustrating though. Especially since I'm talking about very low volume emails (not a newsletter or anything). Do you know why some emails are silently dropped while others are marked as junk and allowed to pass through?

> From what I've gathered Amazon SES is a reliable alternative since they apparently jump through the hoops for you. That might be where I'm turning to for a solution.

Yes, definitely... at least for commercial sending. SendGrid, SES, Mailgun, Mailchimp - there are a lot of solutions for outbound commercial / bulk and they're reasonably priced and easy to use. They take care of all of the nuts and bolts.

For personal email, I started seeing this change a long time ago and stopped hosting my own at least ten years ago (around the time 1/2 of my DSL got consumed by spam bandwidth). At this juncture, I keep all of my domains on Gmail.

> Do you know why some emails are silently dropped while others are marked as junk and allowed to pass through?

Probably depends on spam score as to whether it gets bulk foldered or killed immediately, and the ISP.

Thanks for letting me pick your brain. Time to take a serious look at moving things over to dedicated mail provider.

We've been using SendGrid at $work and I couldn't be happier. It just works, and it's FAST. 3 lines of configuration in the code and we were integrated. Soon I'm going to implement their Events API so we can start doing some detailed analytics.

It's been years since I've actually encountered this problem. Most of the time the person was lazy, forgetful, or lying to me.

I want to believe in the best in people, I really do. But I do know better and that's all the more reason why we need a way to keep track of this without having to rely on humans telling you the truth.

But the protocol does keep track of it. Just because some end implementation is violating the protocol doesn't make the system broken. It makes their implementation broken.

NO. I want to scream. NO. I just began working at a company that uses "distribution groups" (mailing lists) as a "social network". It's awful as it's not threaded, it's not archived, it's not searchable. It's terrible.

NO. It's your mail client makes these distribution groups a pain in the ass, not email.

Agreed. I use Sup[1] and it's wonderful. Threaded, extremely fast search (indexed), configurable, etc.

[1]: http://sup.rubyforge.org/

NO. It's the fact that the server stores no archive of content. NO. It's the fact that ALL functionality has to be implemented in a thick client. NO. It's the fact that I just started working there, and thus am missing out on AGES of content that have been available to me instantly in FAR SUPERIOR FASHIONS using software that is built to store Wiki, Docs, Forums, etc, in centralized, indexed, searchable, archived formats that is far more useful for "social network" and documentation purposes.

>It's the fact that the server stores no archive of content.

And that's still not a problem of email. That's a problem of your employer's competence. They should have an archive. Everything else you mention are client problems.

It's so painfully obvious just from looking at the email model that that is not true. A lack of a central index? Separate content types that by their very nature contain more information? A searchable archive? None of those things are naturally part of email and providing them, at best is work, at worst is cludgy and unnatural.

You're thinking of this in the completely wrong way. Why should email - the protocol - offer you all of this? It's nonsense, and goes against basic UNIX philosophy (do one thing). It does another part of the UNIX philosophy very well, though: it's a universal interface. Email can be used to communicate between all sorts of applications, and those applications can give you the features you want easily. Which brings us back to what you're complaints amount to: client problems.

This is a social problem, not a technology problem. There are many email lists wih searchable archives.

What if someone could create a new messaging system that

works like previous messaging systems such as email and Usenet, but instead of sending a message along with its entire thread of previous messages, or requiring all responses to be stored in each user's inbox for context, message documents that contain complete threads of multimedia messages (blips) are perpetually stored on a central server. These documents are shared with collaborators who can be added or removed from the document at any point during a document's existence.

And I could add much more to my wish list. If only someone, with lots of brains and financial resources would come up with something like this and push it to gain wide acceptance then we would forget about the horror that email is very quickly...

For some more info: http://bit.ly/1aAMNd

Imagine if someone created that and then completely failed to integrate it with legacy email so that nobody could transition across, ran it as invite only beta for so long everyone lost interest and then failed to succesfully engineer the product so that it had stability issues and was nearly unusable on low end or old computers.

I'm convinced that the world could be a different place now if Google had done just a few things differently with Wave ...

Thank you. I came here hoping someone would point out that all these pain points people have with email were essentially solved with Wave. But instead of seeing the underlying system, people focused on a client UI that accessed the Wave protocol.

Doesn't that more or less describe Google Wave?

The link exactly describes (for it is) Google Wave.

Well, that is embarrassing. Currently tethered to an EDGE connection and didn't click for fear of a ginormous page on the other end. Serves me right!

I was one of the few that raved about and loved Google Wave. :(

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