I’m a hacker, and I love to build stuff for the Web.


Improving Email, Realistically

Thursday 21st February, 2013

Every day it seems there’s more hype about a new startup that’s setting out to destrominate email as we know it. The thing is, email has been around longer than even the Web, and I reckon that it’ll still be around in its current form for a long time to come. Rather than trying to revolutionize the way we communicate, what are some small, incremental, backwards-compatible improvements we can make to the protocol and the UX of email clients?

A real problem for me is dealing with a backlog of personal emails over brief periods of time when I’m busy, traveling, in a different timezone or just plain tired. So what I really need is not a new interface to my email, but rather a way of managing expectations for people who send me emails. This expectation management could have the effect of preventing someone from sending the email in the first place, or perhaps reaching out to me through a different medium (like telephone, Skype or IM).

One way of solving this problem would be to build a client which works in exactly the same way as modern ones, but recognizes patterns in my behavior and publishes a metric based on info like:

  • my calendar;
  • my current timezone;
  • the average time I take to respond to other emails;
  • the length of the email I need to respond to; etc.

When someone is drafting an email to me, they should be able to see an estimated time to response live-updating as they write, based on information published by my email client:

The ‘information’ published would effectively have to be some kind of function over the length of the e-mail, its sender, my calendar, plus some indication of my present ‘business’ (including whether or not I’m likely to be asleep). So the obvious strategy is to build an API that works at Layer 7 (either DNS TXT/SRV records, or just HTTP à la Gravatar) where you can post a bunch of information in a JSON object and receive a best-guess estimate of the time I would take to respond.

Such a system has several benefits:

  • It’s 100% non-intrusive. You don’t need to change your current email client, or join a waiting list behind 56,000 other people to use it.
  • It’s decentralized: you can point to your ‘response expectation management provider’ from your DNS records, enabling a competitive market of such providers; some might be free and advert/VC-supported, others would be ‘profitable and proud’, others still would be open-source.
  • It can be private, if you want it to be: just run your own server. Obviously there’d be a benefit to using Google’s provider—they’re really good at predicting this sort of stuff, and it’d integrate seamlessly with Google Apps.

I just had this idea while drinking my espresso this morning, but you can discuss it further on Hacker News.