Email, as we know it today, was developed in the early 1980s, a derivative of code from ARPANET made ten years prior. It went through a handful of iterations and today, most of the Internet relies on a solid little performer called sendmail. Sendmail is, surprisingly, quite a simple and small program. It sits in millions of Unix servers around the world to ferry email messages to and fro.
Sendmail is a great program. But it’s old. It’s still mostly the same program it began as. That’s no good.
Meanwhile, commercial email systems, like Microsoft’s Exchange or Novell’s Groupwise, have filled the functionality gap and added new functions that make electronic communications far more effective. And yet, we still slog along with the tired old sendmail. Email should do more than it does. And there’s no reason why we can’t start now.
Everyone who’s reading this article has had this experience: You compose an email, perhaps a little hot-headed, and hit the Send button. That’ll teach him, you think. An hour passes. You realize maybe you shouldn’t have called your boss a pig-headed douchebag after all. Lucky for you, he’s not back in the office until tomorrow. If your message were sent as a post-it note, you could walk into his office and throw it away. Not so with email.Barring breaking into his office, you’d best use your time thinking of grovelling strategies.
Commercial email systems like Exchange have been able to retract emails for years. You just track down your “Dear douchebag” email in your sent items, and click the “Retract Email” button. Done. Gmail has a slightly different take on it — you can send the email from your computer, but Gmail will hold onto it for up to 10 seconds before it actually sends it along (you have to turn this option on in Settings / Labs).
But the vast majority of email users should have this kind of functionality.
Enough With The Endless Quotes
An email currently in my inbox contains two sentences. And ten screens full of the past conversation. Gmail can hide this conversation, but it still gets sent through servers worldwide. I’d venture a bet that 85% of email traffic on the Internet is actually this back conversation. This may have been a great feature to have in the early 80s when email clients didn’t really exist as we know them now, but it’s just silly these days. We already have the back-conversation because we’ve been in it. We need a “Show Me This Conversation’s History” button that constructs the conversation flow from our records.
Email 2.0 should not permit anyone to send attachments. You read that right. Emails are a lousy distribution method for sending large binary files.
Anyone who’s used an online upload service, like drop.io, can see where this needs to go. Rather than attaching a video file (or whatever) to an email, where that file literally travels with the email en route to its recipient, the Attachment button should instead place that file on one of these systems.
This has a number of benefits. Since attachments will live elsewhere, those attachment-hosting services can add more value. File conversions can happen on the fly. Send a Word DOC file, and I can download it as an Apple Pages document, PDF, ebook reader, or whatever I want. No more “I can’t open this file! Can you export it as a blah blah and send it again?”
We’d also have more control over the security of the attachment. Attachments can self-destruct after they’ve been downloaded. Or you can set them to only be downloaded from a certain IP range (within your company, for instance). That way, even if someone steals your notebook computer and gets into your email, they won’t be able to get access to critical files that were sent to you.
This is a common workflow for me:
- Send important email that I need an answer for.
- Promptly forget about it.
Email needs to provide a reminder service that’s optionally tied to a specific date. If I email my agent and I need to hear back from her by Friday, the only way I can be assured that I’ll keep this email active is by putting a note in RememberTheMilk.com or writing myself a reminder.
This should be built directly into email. When you send an email, you should be able to set a date when you want the email to “bubble back up” from your sent items if you haven’t heard back from the person at the other end. When you do hear back from them, a simple “Close this thread OR Set a new bubble-up date” prompt would make me far more efficient.
Gootodo.com claims to offer this kind of functionality — bcc’ing 4D@gootodo.com will have the service send you the email back four days (“4D”) later. It’s rudimentary and, um, doesn’t seem to work. At least when I’ve tried.
What email functions do YOU wish existed?
About the author: Tod Maffin is a senior social media strategist and thought-leader in the areas of social media ROI and recruiting, leading, and teaching, Generation Y/Millennials. His information-rich, funny, and fast-paced keynote presentations keep him in high demand at more than 40 major conferences around the world each year. More at http://todmaffin.com | Twitter | Facebook