Email Clients Show There's Still Hope for the Inbox

Tackling an email inbox full of spam, newsletters and reply-all chains can be a headache. Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham wrote an article recently about the modern day problems he wants to see solved and wants to fund, and unsurprisingly, email is one of those problems. “Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now,” Graham wrote. “Email is not a messaging protocol. It’s a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad todo list.”

There are alternatives to email inboxes, from Twitter’s direct message feature to the Facebook inbox, but they often aren’t a suitable replacement for email. Traditional email services are trying to improve on the frustrating aspects of email to make sure users don’t stray. Within Google’s Gmail service there’s been a slew of innovation through the dozens of extra features from Gmail Labs. And outside plugins are improving the experience as well, with industry players taking note – Gmail plugin Rapportive was recently acquired by LinkedIn for a rumoured $15 million in cash. The browser add-on provides rich contact profiles on a sidebar next to an email, pulling a user’s social graph into their inbox. The investors in the social CRM add-on were none other than Y CombinatorGary Vaynerchuk, and Paul Buchheit, who was the 23rd employee at Google and the original lead developer of of Gmail.

For most users, Facebook or Twitter’s messaging system is not a suitable replacement for email, and they need something like Gmail, Microsoft Outlook or Apple’s Mail client. A number of native client alternatives to Mail.app on Mac OS X exist, including NotifyPostboxMailplane, and Mozilla’s Thunderbird. However none have attracted the widespread attention and usage of Sparrow. A fully native desktop email client for Mac with full support for Gmail’s labels and stars, the real difference with Sparrow is the design and simplicity. The UI looks similar to Twitter client Tweetie, which was acquired by Twitter last year, and that’s no coincidence: Tweetie creator Loren Brichter is one of the company’s advisors. Sparrow co-founder Dom Leca told The Next Web that when he saw Tweetie for the first time, he thought it would be the default UI for many apps. After starting development of Sparrow, he simply asked Brichter if he could adapt the same UI as Tweetie. Sparrow just recently introduced an iOS version of its client, too, which is already attracting plenty of positive attention.

Alexander Mimran, founder of online diary and personal journal web app Penzu, is now working on helping people communicate more effectively. Mimran plans to do that with his new startup Minbox, which is taking a different approach at email. While Minbox is still in stealth mode, he revealed to BetaKit that he doesn’t see anything wrong with Gmail, Facebook’s messaging system or any of the other email clients. He simply views Minbox as addressing a different type of email user. One that doesn’t need those advanced and complex features of Gmail, but also requires something more than, say,  direct messaging on Twitter. Commenting on Sparrow, Mimran believes the application is leading the way and “doing some amazing stuff.” He believes it isn’t just Minbox or Sparrow or another client that will help the 21st century problems of email, but multiple clients providing solutions to different types of users. “It’s a massive market and I think we can co-exist, we’re not necessarily building this for the Gmail user.”

Email is something that people spend hours using daily, so it only makes sense for companies to develop multiple solutions, and for users to have their choice of email client. But the real key to providing lasting value will be finding ways to help email better become, as Graham would put it, the service we’re already trying to use it as every day.

View this full article on here on BetaKit, a new publication covering emerging tech and global innovation.