It has been a minor obsession in my life to find good ways of managing email. I have been down the route whereby my Inbox is a mixture of things I have just received, things I have ignored but may come back to and things that I am trying to trigger some memory for. A few years ago, there was a Kickstarter for Mailpilot that actually had an incredible but by now obvious insight: your email is, in fact, a ‘to do’ list and should be organised as such. The idea was that an email would be received and it would trigger some action including (i) to pop back later (at a specified time); (ii) to become an actual ‘to do’ or (iii) to be replied to (with this option also including an optional reminder to ‘expect a reply back’ from that person). That last bit was hard to do and required Mail Pilot to actually store information on your emails — something people didn’t like — and it was dropped from their final product.
While Mail Pilot was being developed out came Mailbox which was being developed as mobile first and introduced a, now very clever, wait list and queue. It was not as full featured as Mail Pilot was intended to be but it was dead easy to use and did tasks (i) and (ii) very, very well. For the last two years, Mailbox was my email client of choice. Indeed, it actually added a feature that noticed when you were dismissing emails from a certain source and you could opt to have that action occur automatically. To be sure, email programs do this but Mailbox just made it easier. (Mailbox was acquired a while ago by Dropbox for, what was speculated as, $100 million).
Last week, Google released its own new email client, called Inbox. At first, many were dismissive of it, since it seemed to do what Mailbox did but didn’t necessarily have Mailbox’s polish. But I was fortunate enough to receive an invite and so signed up to try it out. Inbox is an email/to do list but somehow manages to get more in. First of all, it does not do the usual thing with the email list. Instead of just a list of sender and subject headings, it actually provides ‘peeks’ into the content. You can see pictures, video and one click access to attachments. This turns out to be surprisingly useful as my first task with such emails is to go looking for those things anyway.
Second, it integrates the to do list with email using ‘pins.’ The idea is that when you receive an email you can (i) mark it as done, (ii) pin it as an immediate to do and (iii) become a reminder whereby it appears in your inbox at a specified time in the future or when you get to a certain place (like work). This last bit is great. I was travelling over the past week so I used this function and as soon as I got to work 10 emails reappeared to remind me of things.
Third, it then adds some Google algorithmic sorting to all of this called ‘bundles.’ Now Gmail have tried this before with the important tab (that never quite worked) and then the social, promos, updates and forums to help sort your mail. The problem is that these things are never quite perfect and you couldn’t quite see what was in a tab you weren’t on. It was fine but not compelling. Inbox does the same thing but keeps it all in the one stream so you can see what is going on. It also allows you to mark as done with one click all the items in a particular bundle. So each morning I have a bunch of promos. I can scan and then get rid of them all really easily. Moreover, I can easily train Inbox to sort messages. For instance, it is PhD recommendation time and so last night a bunch of requests appeared. I don’t have to deal with them for a while so I trained Inbox to automatically sort them into a bundle for later.
All this has meant that Inbox (which is available as a iPhone app and also a web app but sadly not an iPad app) has become my email program of choice. I occasionally need others to compose emails and the like but sorting through them on Inbox is the way I now go — it has moved straight into the dock on my iPhone and Tab No.1 in the browser. (Austin Frakt has had a similar experience).
What is interesting is that email isn’t actually the main thing I would like this for. What I would like is for Facebook to do this. At the moment, Facebook offers two things: one easy, one hard. The easy one is to go with Facebook’s algorithm that provides posts into your news feed. I hate that because I might miss something. The alternative is to, with difficulty, just look at recent stuff. But that gives you too much and is a pain to train. I want two things from Facebook: (i) allow me to see posts I haven’t ‘read’ or scrolled past and (ii) allow me to take entire collections and put them into bundles and then ‘read’ them quickly. Basically, I want ‘Inbox for Facebook.’ Would that be so hard?