Email as a platform

Google just announced Actions in the Inbox.

By adding some markup (Microdata or JSON-LD) to the HTML emails you send out, Gmail can now display quick action buttons next to your email.

Some might see this as simply another random extension, or a Gmail gimmick à la Gmail Labs extensions. We rather see it as part of a trend in which communication channels and devices are changed into platforms supporting an entire “ecosystem of apps”. Mobile phones used to be for calling, emails used to be for sending someone a text message (and I guess sunglasses used to be for just protecting your eyes :). Not anymore. All these things have turned into platforms with many apps running on top. All this added functionality makes it much more interesting for consumers, and more exciting for developers to hack new apps on top of. The companies behind them of course know that they can win the real battles by having the better ecosystem (would you switch to Windows Phone if it doesn’t have your favorite YouTube app, or to Hotmail if it doesn’t have your Movies Info app).

Many people would agree that email as it works today just isn’t good enough anymore. People try to use it for much more than it was originally intended. It’s no longer just a way to send people a message, it’s also a todo list, a CRM application, a help desk, a way to organize events, split bills, and much more. Because of this, the way email works desperately needs to be changed, at least extended.

One approach is to completely reinvent email as we know it, Email 2.0. We think this is a step in the wrong direction. One famous example of a very cool but failed attempt is Google Wave. It’s exciting to work on these projects, and of course developers love to completely rewrite and reinvent things, but let’s not forget email is already very popular and it’s hard to make everybody switch. It’s also not needed, which brings us to the other alternative: there are many ways email can be extended with new (open!) standards. It’s called Actions now, but it might look more like complete “email apps” in the future. We already know people want to use their email more effectively, and in fact using some clever hacks, some “apps” were already built and proven to be popular (Rapportive, for example). Plus, as a platform, it’s already used before as a “human API” to build services on (like sending an email to trigger some action like creating a blog post, an invoice, or – like with a weekend project of ours – create an online form).

One of the reasons email is so popular is because it just works, everywhere. So of course we need to deal with things like mobile views and graceful degradation to make sure that remains to be the case. But a player like Gmail is big enough to take the first step into allowing developers to build more apps around email, using new, open standards. And I believe that with us many other developers would be happy to write them, and make email much more powerful and effective than it is today.

4 thoughts on “Email as a platform

  1. Rehan Wijetunge

    Would be great to see how this progresses, Yahoo! Mail has tried this out with it’s “Applications” but I’m unsure of how successful those are but interesting none-the-less. Seeing all the attachments sent to you would be useful especially when dealing with documents. Though the biggest improvement would be to fix email overload.

  2. Phil Hill

    Hi Rehan –

    I agree, Gmail is a platform that can and is being extended.

    About a year ago we through in a new Gmail feature to a newsletter curation app called flashissue. It really took off. Many of our small business users starting telling us that they would rather stay in Gmail when it comes to creating a newsletter – as opposed to signing up for another service. like Mailchimp. They want to be able to email market to people in their address book – they dont have an external list.

    We’re getting ready to add a set of features to Gmail, that will help this whole process: a better newsletter editor, list builder (with unsubcribe etc) and campaign analytics. Think, all the features you get in Mailchimp but now inside Gmail.

    Anyone with thoughts / feedback would be useful. Take a look at http://flashissue.com/for-gmail .

  3. Deano

    I just had a thought today about improving email and I’ve no idea if this development could help.
    I often have to search gmail for a specific topic or info nugget. I then would *love* to compile selected emails into a custom list or “Case” and be able to add notes around them. And perhaps scrawled annotations via the mobile app. On top of that add auto-filtering of email to Cases.

    At the moment I tag related emails but it provides a less than satisfactory experience.

    Then again it would be awesome if emails could be embedded into Papyrs somehow.

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