Bringing email into the 21st century

John McKinley, former AOL CTO and now VC, asks “Who will be the first major (Google/Yahoo/Microsoft/AOL) to break ranks and apply a fundamentally new metaphor to email?” There’s been a proliferation in ways to communicate — IM, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Wikis, SMS, comments.

People have more compelling, more contextual, more effective, and more convenient options to share and interact than ever before, and incumbent forms of communications will be the losers here.

Email as we know it has changed little since the mid-90s. Most of the features have been incremental. The biggest breakthrough was Webmail instead of client-based mail — and that happened in 1996.

John has some great thoughts. Here are my additions, in priority order:

Spam control – One of the reasons I like Facebook messaging is that I know that messages are much more likely to be real — no Viagra or stock pitches. I’d say more than 70% of the mail I get in my Gmail account is spam. I also have had numerous cases of false positives with important personal mail getting sent to the spam folders. As a domain owner, I also get to deal with the bounces from spammers forging my domain name. We need to move to a model where we focus on identifying the good email. (See my blog post on Picture ID for one example.) If the big four would work together to secure email sent among them, it’d be a big step forward.

Security – This strikes me as a business opportunity for the big 4. It amazes me that this far into email, it is less secure than paper mail. I’d love to sign up for e-billing with all my credit card companies and utilities, but it’s a pain. The lack of email security requires that I get an email reminder (hope that the email doesn’t get spam filtered), log into their site and then view a PDF. I just want them to send me a copy of my bill that I can view, store and search. You could probably charge for this – 1 or 2 cents per bill is a lot cheaper than the post office. You could also provide the ancillary service (which is becoming even more important) of authenticating the emails to prevent phishing.

Smarts – I wrote a blog post about smart email a while back. Many of the emails I get are from computers – banks, credit card companies, airlines, etc. They’re all generated off templates. Understand them and do the right thing. Put my bill due notices on the calendar, along with my itineraries. Show me when that package from Amazon is going to arrive. Automatically archive all the sales and deals that have expired. I don’t think entity extraction is good enough for this. Google has been trying for a while with Gmail and the results have been fairly poor. It will likely require the mailers to follow microformats and append the data in machine readable form. But if the Big 4 were to agree on a framework for the formats, it would take off. You could start with vCal and work from there.

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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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