The dumbest application you can’t live without

Email. I use it everyday and I mostly hate it. We’re stuck with a system that was designed decades ago in the kumbaya days of the Internet when most people who were connected to the Internet meant well and getting an email was exciting. In several ways, email today is worse than even postal mail. It’s less secure. You get more junk mail (there’s little economic disincentive to spam).

Because email is processed by computer, your email application could do a lot of things for you automatically. Most of the email I get is computer generated:

  • Travel reservations, including flight, hotel and cars.
  • Payment reminders from your banks and credit card companies.
  • E-commerce order receipts and shipping confirmations.
  • Account registration confirmations.

All of this information arrives in your mailbox without context, making it difficult to sort through it. Need to find a travel reservation later? I searched on “united airlines” in my mailbox and got hundreds of results, including frequent flier statements, e-check in reminders, weekly promotional emails. Even searching on “united itinerary” brought up 60+ emails since the beginning of the year. (Most of which weren’t either United or itineraries.)

Gmail filtersI try to add some context to messages when they come in through a series of filters. These include cryptic rules like IF SENDER = “UNITED- CONFIRMATION @ UNITED.COM” then add labels “Travel” and “Receipts”. I’ve created more than 40 of these rules.

Most people, of course, won’t do this. Nor should they have to. United should be able to differentiate among itineraries, frequent flier statements, promotions and other mail in machine readable form. Whether you want to call them tags, labels or something else, email should support this kind of context.

I’ve written before about email and calendar data. With this type of context, your email application could keep the most relevant information top of mind. Upcoming trips could be separated automatically from past itinieraries. Sale emails from retailers could be sorted into “ongoing”, “expiring soon” and “expired”.


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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3 Responses to The dumbest application you can’t live without

  1. jimsimmons says:

    Rock, I think the Mail guys are looking for a new PDM. 🙂

  2. mukesh says:

    Seems like an opportunity for an email provider to differentiate itself from the competition. I don’t know why none of them have tackled this yet. My intuition says that automatically classifying common types of emails (receipts, shipment notifications, intineraries, etc.) shouldn’t be too hard.

    And there may be a more general opportunity here — stop treating e-mail as just buckets of text, and start helping users manage the data they contain. (Gmail has taken a first step here by identifying possible calendar events, and offering to add those to the user’s calendar. But I think there’s a lot more to be done here.)

  3. The trick is you’ve got to use both the text and the sender information, otherwise you’re potentially helping phishers.

    But that’s another opportunity. If the banks, retailers, airlines, etc. would publish their legitimate mailservers, you could have a certification of sorts.

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