Saturday, August 02, 2008

The future of Email

If there is a service that is used the most frequently by most of the Web users, it must be email. The invention of email is often thought to be the killer application of Internet. Without email, the adoption of Internet might have been delayed for several years.

Recently, however, email seems facing a little bit challenge. With the rise of new services such as instant message, wiki, Twitter, and all kinds of social networking functions, email is already no longer the solely primary choice for online communication. How should email be improved to satisfy the rapidly evolving Web?

First of all, we should not try to construct some super-email service that integrates all kinds of new service functions from IM to social networking. It would be a monster too heavy for users to drive, as Alex Iskold pointed out in his post.

Here are a few features I believe a new-generation email should be equipped. Email does not have to replace the other services. But email does need to improve itself.

editable after sent

Twine builds a very useful feature in its email service---users may edit its already-sent email. At least to me, this is a great feature. I am not sure how many of you have the experience that you want to revise an email just sent out. I often have. I believe that the feeling is especially regular among writers whose mother tongue is not English.

Moreover, many time I feel that I may only catch certain error after it is officially sent. This feeling might be based on some psychological reasons. But anyway, sending out an email containing improper verses or uncaught typos is not only embarrassing but some time also deadly if the email is important such as a job application.

Therefore, an upgraded email service should allow the senders to be able to revise and update their sent messages, especially before the mail being opened by the receivers. Twine is ahead on this service. But there are certainly other ways to solve the problem besides Twine's solution. For instance, we may simply allow users to send a new message to "replace" an old sent message. If the sent message has not been opened yet, the server can simply "replace" the old one by the new message; or otherwise, the sender may notice the server either deliver the "replacing" message as a normal new message or omit it totally.

I would suggest such a feature called "replace" be a new basic email function side-by-side with send and obtain emails.


Gmail allows users to label received emails. But why not encourage email senders to tag their messages at the first place? The title of email could not say much. With sender-generated tags, however, it greatly helps receivers filter their messages. And it also helps catch spammers when they abuse tags.

video email channels

A problem of combining video with email is that video files are often too big for emails to carry. But why videos must be sent. With the tagging function I just mentioned, regular email services may open a separate video email channel that allows people to record and listen to video emails. The regular email can simply be used to exchange the entry-point of the message in the channel with tags so that receivers may know what the shared channel is about.


There are actually more thoughts but I am a little bit tired of blogging more. One certain thing is, however, that we do expect a new-generation email as many other analysts have mentioned (see the referenced resources).

If only we may open our mind and think proactively, innovation is everywhere. Thinking Space is a place of creative thinking. I always believe that the value of a person is not mainly about what he has thought out. By contrast, the true value of a person is about what he is capable of active thinking and thus be able to continuously invent new ideas. Again, this human ability is the value of mind asset, a gift that every human being owns but only through everlasting practices it becomes more and more valuable.

Referenced resources:


Anonymous said...


One advantage of e-mail at my workplace is that if someone asks you for something and e-mails you, you have a record of it. If that person or someone else comes back to you and asks why you did the task you were e-mailed, you can show them the original e-mail from the sender.


Richard Rinyai

Unknown said...

Hi Yihong

Although I agree with you that e-mail needs some enhancements, I don't agree with the ones you mentioned.

You compare e-mail to Twitter or IM. Well, Twitter and IM are synchronous means of communication while e-mail is asynchronous. It's very important to keep that in mind. If I need an answer directly I use phone, IM; if I need an answer sometime I use e-mail. Unfortunately many people use e-mail as if it were synchronous and require you to answer instantly.

Concerning your "feature requests".

edit after send
Outlook already has that feature and I'll use it regularly (for the case you mentioned - typos). So this feature already exists but is not implemented everywhere.

Sure this is a better aproach than using folders. However gmails tagging is basically nothing else than folders. With one major advantage, you only have one copy of the email. With folders you need to have two.

Features I'd like to see

Better spam protection.
I think we all agree that spam is the most annoying part of this type of communication.

Keeping sent and received e-mails together
One of the really good features of gmail is the abilit to see conversations, not just received or sent e-mails by itself. So it gives you a lot better view of the communication. But, this is not a new feature to the e-mail system itself, it just a better way of handling them.

So, I think e-mail doesn't need a bunch of new features, what it needs is
1. better tools to really use the current features.
2. people who understand that e-mail is another means than IM or twitter and use it in the correct way.


Yihong Ding said...

@ Richard, thank you and I think you are perfectly right.

@ Michael, thank you for your thoughtfully comments. I agree to you that email is different from phone or IM, and email should not try to replace them either. On the other hand, however, email needs to be improved so that it may continuously be compatible to the evolving Web (and this is the main point I want to address).

The typical example is tagging. Tagging is not the same as putting documents into folders. By contrast, through tagging users actually build up a mind network over its emails. If both the senders and receivers are tagging, through these tags we may construct novel thread communication among common tag users. And you will see that email functions could be significantly improved with this sense. Folders cannot work well for this kind of purposes.

About spam control and better email user community, they are critical demand for improving the email service. I agree to your viewpoints.