For decades, people have been complaining that email, the internet's killer app, is broken. Go back to 2010 and you'll find Google citing customer complaints about email overload as the rationale for filtering technology.
Go back further to 1996, when the first free email services began to appear, and you'll find researchers at Lotus Development Corporation, shortly after it was acquired by IBM, talking about email overload at a time when most people did not have personal email accounts.
With the mobile revolution and the rise of messaging and chat apps, people have been able to explore other communication channels.
Willingness to look beyond email appears to be related to age. Mary Meeker's "2016 Internet Trends Report" notes that while Baby Boomers (born 1945-1960) and Generation X (born 1961-1980) favor the phone first and email second as preferred communication channels for contacting businesses, Generation Y (born 1981-1999) favors internet/web chat first and social media second for interacting with businesses, with email dropping to third place.
The success of team collaboration and organization tools like Asana and Slack demonstrates that email isn't the right tool for every communication scenario.
However, IT professionals needn't give up on email. There may be better ways to manage projects than email triage, but email isn't past saving. At least that's the hope of Nylas, a startup founded by Michael Grinich and Christine Spang.
Nylas makes an open source email app called Nylas N1. It also offers Nylas Cloud, a set of APIs for integrating apps with existing email providers and account data. Nylas Cloud is an alternative to IMAP and Exchange.
In a blog post, Grinich declares, "Email is the database of your life." In a phone interview, he explained, "There are millions and millions of types of data sources that can end up in email," he said. "It really ends up becoming this personal endpoint that anyone can send information to."
Asana and Slack are great products, said Grinich, noting that his company uses them. "Largely, they're for internal team-based communication," he said. "What they're really not built for is external communication."
As an example, he said that he wouldn't invite someone outside the company to a Slack chat room to provide them with a calendar invite. "Email is the common denominator across everything," he said.
Grinich sees N1 as a foundation for new email experiences. "The reason why N1 is really powerful is because it's built to be extensible."
The idea is that email can be improved through additional code. Daunted by unread email messages? Write a filter. Looking for a way to structure email data and add it to Salesforce? Write a plugin.
Nylas says its software complies with Safe Harbor rules for the US and EU, is PCI and HIPPA-ready, and undergoes regular 3rd party audits and penetration tests. The cloud service encrypts data at rest, and its API calls require proprietary OAuth2 tokens. It enforces TLS for public and private networks, and it runs on AWS, which has its own strong security protections.
Email has stood the test of time. Maybe the problem is not the medium but the way that messages get handled.
(Cover image: alexsl/iStockphoto)Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio