Skip to content

March 6, 2009

8

Seeking Better Email

gmail-logo-1

As I was writing my column yesterday for Blogging Tips, something dawned on me. That as much as I love Gmail, there aren’t many alternatives out there.

I wondered aloud on Twitter why there were no viable competitors for Gmail and got a slew of good responses. One of the best came from user @lance_ who said that “It takes a lot of market clout or money to get past spam filters. There isn’t a huge market for b2b & consumers already got an address.” (fixed quote for tweet-speak).

Others seemed to feel that the market was saturated while others still were quick to remind me about Microsoft Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, neither of which really hold much of a candle to Gmail in terms of features. When you consider that Gmail, for free, offers nearly unlimited space, free IMAP access, threading, powerful search, good spam filtering and more, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail look like weaklings.

Gmail is pretty much the undisputed champion right now, at least in terms of features and power, and, sadly, there is no real competition on the horizon. Yahoo! and Microsoft seem to have rolled over and other companies, like Zenbe, would rather build off of Gmail than create something truly new.

The result is that Gmail has stagnated. What was revolutionary when it was first created has slowed to a crawl. Most of the “Labs” features are either mistakes that should never have been in Gmail, such as Signature Tweaks, Title Tweaks, etc. or outright catchup with other systems, such as Canned Responses.

Gmail, which is still in beta, hasn’t blossomed and though it seems to announce new features regularly, most seem outright trivial. So where’s the competition to keep the fire hot? Where is the upstart company with a bold new vision and a competing ideal? It isn’t there.

It’s time for some competition. Time for an upstart group of rebels to really attack this issue and see what they can do. Will it be easy? No. Is it impossible? Maybe. But the future of email may depend on it.

Love for Gmail

The main reason that no one seems to have taken on this issue is because most people seem to really love their Gmail. And why not? It’s fast, its search is great, the threaded conversation feature works really well, its spam filtering is top-notch and you even get free IMAP access if you prefer to use Outlook or Thunderbird.

Gmail is, for all intents and purposes, warm buttery email goodness. I use it, my friends use it, most people I talk to use it. Everyone loves their Gmail and with good reason.

But this undying devotion to Gmail is dangerous. Sure, Gmail is great today, but is having only only one serious email provider really a good thing? Sure, Yahoo! and Hotmail both have more subscribers, but among those that take email serious, Gmail is the undisputed king and the devotion, no matter how deserved, is rabid.

To be honest and fair, Gmail got where it did by revolutionizing the way we did email back in 2004/2005. In a time where storage in Webmail services was measured in MB and deleting mail a common problem, Gmail came on the scene with GBs of storage, threaded conversations and a slick new interface. It took our current Webmail services and made them look puny and dated, even before most of us had access to Gmail.

But after its initial innovations it really hasn’t done that much. Most of the changes have been tweaks, fixes and minor improvements. Gmail became famous for its broad strokes but has, in the past four years or so, done nothing but fix some of the details.

The only broad stroke was to enable IMAP access for all accounts, a great feature, but one that has nothing to do with the Web interface. In fact, it was more of an escape for those who didn’t like what Gmail was bringing.

The kick to the stomach there though is that there hasn’t been much good done with email clients in the last five years either. Even Thunderbird has had its development stagnate, especially when compared to Firefox.

As great as Gmail is, if you find yourself dissatisfied for any reason, you’re pretty much out of luck. There are no viable replacements right now and Google is coding like they know it.

The Internet Explorer Problem

Though it is hard to imagine, there was a time when using Internet Explorer was actually cool. When it was first introduced, it was free, powerful and way ahead of Netscape, its main rival. It took market share away, inch by inch, and eventually became a de facto monopoly.

But that was when things got ugly. IE, for the most part, didn’t bother doing anything. It reached the top of the mountain and, since it wasn’t making Microsoft any money, it got treated like an unwanted stepchild.

The result was bad for the Web in every way. Though having a free and powerful browser was, at first, a good thing, it became a nightmare as Microsoft flouted Internet standards, ignored browser innovations (IE: tabbed browsing) and generally made life Hell for developers and users alike.

It wasn’t until a serious challenger, namely Firefox, came along that they began to wake up and release new versions. It’s no coincidence that a two-year release cycle stretched into 5 beginning with the release of IE 6 in 2001, roughly when IE reached the pinnacle of its market share, and that IE7 would be the one to introduce tabbed browsing, years after it had been in other browsers.

The end result was that, by introducing competition, Firefox improved the Web for everyone, including IE users.

Though I’m not saying Google is going to be as flagrant in ignoring Gmail as Microsoft was with IE, but its a simple fact that any company interested in the bottom line isn’t going to spend as much money developing something they already have a solid lead in. If there are no good threats, there’s no motivation to innovate.

In short, Gmail may be so good, that it’s bad for email.

So Where Are the Startups?

So where are these companies that can light a fire under Google? Well, I think the market may be to blame.

The problem is five-fold:

  1. Market Saturation: Virtually everyone that wants an email address has one and most of us have several. Any new email system would first have to convince people to move their data over to their service, thus opening up a whole new series of headaches.
  2. Startup Capital: There’s a good reason the biggest webmail systems are provided by large companies, it’s because it takes a lot of money to run one. Server costs, personnel, support, spam filtering, etc. It takes a lot more than a good front end to make a good Webmail provider and that makes it costly to run.
  3. Poor Monetization: The only way to earn revenue from webmail is to either charge for pro accounts or sell ads. Gmail killed the first business model and, well, good luck with the second, in this economy especially.
  4. Email Isn’t Cool: Email may be necessary, but it is so last decade. Developers and startups today want to do rich media, microblogging, social networking, instant messaging and anything with an API. As important as email is, it doesn’t get many people excited anymore.
  5. Trust Factor: How is a new startup going to get users to trust them enough with all of their data AND a business-critical application? I have no idea. Any solution will have to come from an established, reputable company.

In the end, it may be that the door has been shut on email-based startups. Though some, like Postbox, are building products and services to work with Gmail, no one seems to be ready to go against it.

It’s a love fest with Gmail and it’s only a matter of time until the big “G” gets bored with the relationship.

Bottom Line

I hope that we don’t have to wait for Gmail to bottom out the way IE did before we see some competition. It would be sad to see that the move to create an alternative would be motivated more out of anger rather than a simple desire for choice.

Gmail is great, but it may be too awesome for its own good. We all need a little conflict to stay on our game and companies need it even more.

Someone out there has to have a great idea for making email faster/easier/better, so I say we hear it. If someone doesn’t try, we may be waltzing right into an email dark age.

  • http://www.Rarst.net Rarst

    I think email is confined by underlying tech. Unreliable, plagued by spam, totally ugly for file transfer, etc. And oversaturated with services on top.

    It is not Gmail that fall asleep, it is that it hit wall of ancient tech that is still limited to transferring some text around and hoping it gets where it should.

    Now if someone comes up with innovative backbone, plenty of cool functions while keeping both layer of backwards compatibility and front-end compatibility… One can dream, right? :)

  • http://www.lawrencesalberg.com Lawrence Salberg

    Gee, I dunno. I've used Gmail for 2+ years and have been using zenbe for some other projects the past 4-5 months. I didn't get the impression it “built off” gmail, unless anyone is still counting 'conversations” and archiving as a gmail-inspired features.

    Other than that, I thought Zenbe is very different from Gmail, both in its workflow and its simplicity. I felt they truly started from scratch. I really like the integration of the calendar (which gmail still lacks with Google Calendar) and the file uploads/downloads.

    I also use the new yahoo mail for a few things and it is a TON better than the old one. It does everything I need. I do wish it had conversations and archiving, but for my purposes there, it is fully adequate. I probably would use Gmail for 99% of my email things (instead of 50%) but I'm maxed out on the five external POP3 accounts it allows. If they ever change that, or offer a paid upgrade for more accounts, I'd likely move everything over to it. Except Yahoo. Gotta have my Yahoo account – how does anyone on the web function without a Yahoo account. I'll never know.

  • http://www.plagiarismtoday.com Jonathan Bailey

    Maybe you have a point there. But the problem is that the best hope along those lines is social networking sites and their messengers. Combine it with OpenID and you could have an email-like messaging service. The problem is that these services across the board have far worse messaging platforms than even email. I'd rather eat my own eyeball than attempt to use Myspace or Facebook for serious communication.

    I think the overall structure of email can be used for greater things than Gmail. It's just going to require some reimagining of what it can do…

  • http://www.plagiarismtoday.com Jonathan Bailey

    Looking back at the service,. Zenbe has done a lot since I was last on it to separate itself from Gmail. I have to give it that. Previously, the whole marketing about it was that it would allow you to use you Gmail account, that it was Gmail like and that it added a few new features. It billed itself as a Gmail+ kind of service, that is definitely less true.

    Regarding Yahoo. You'll know the problems with your Yahoo account the second you find yourself on a dialup connection. Trying to use the new interface while on dialup is, quite literally, impossible. Gmail works and degrades cleanly, Yahoo! switches back to its old version, which is a pain to use and still moves very slow.

    I give Yahoo cred for bringing a more client-like interface, but it doesn't work well on slower connections at all.

  • http://www.emailfail.com Jay

    How about a service that lets you manage all your email adresses in one spot and adds features like threading, notes, and search. AND allows shared mailboxes to be managed simultaneously??? Check out Email Center Pro .

  • http://www.emailfail.com Jay

    How about a service that lets you manage all your email adresses in one spot and adds features like threading, notes, and search. AND allows shared mailboxes to be managed simultaneously??? Check out Email Center Pro .

  • http://twitter.com/writingc Sarah Lam

    I use Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail! Of course I love Gmail the most and pair it with Thunderbird, it seems to be a perfect combination. Although I like Gmail, I don't really like to check email within Gmail itself. I prefer to use POP3 and check through Thunderbird. Maybe I am used to it and it is now becoming a habit.

    Speaking about Gmail labs, I have to use one that allows us to put the signature above all instead at the bottom. It is very difficult to reply to emails with the signature at the bottom.

  • http://twitter.com/writingc Sarah Lam

    I use Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail! Of course I love Gmail the most and pair it with Thunderbird, it seems to be a perfect combination. Although I like Gmail, I don't really like to check email within Gmail itself. I prefer to use POP3 and check through Thunderbird. Maybe I am used to it and it is now becoming a habit.

    Speaking about Gmail labs, I have to use one that allows us to put the signature above all instead at the bottom. It is very difficult to reply to emails with the signature at the bottom.