Jun 26, 2020 - Technology

The quest to improve email

Illustration of command, N, and email computer keys

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Email remains the dominant form of digital communication, especially in business, but the experience has been frozen in time for a decade. Now, however, a new wave of efforts aims to disrupt it.

Why it matters: Many workers still spend hours a day in their inboxes. Anyone who can make that time more efficient and less painful should find a market.

Driving the news:

  • Basecamp last week introduced Hey, a paid service that aims to improve on traditional email by helping people screen new senders, combine multiple threads and highlight new mail from known senders.
  • Slack this week introduced Slack Connect, allowing companies to connect their workers with those of suppliers, customers and other partners.
  • Others, including Superhuman, are focused on offering email as a paid service.

The big picture: Hey and Slack are taking dramatically different approaches.

Hey aims to reform email, eliminating the hazards and inconveniences of a medium that dates back decades to the internet's infancy.

  • The project survived a very public spat with Apple over keeping its app in the iPhone's App Store, and it is now available without needing an invite.
  • CEO Jason Fried told Axios that the goal wasn't to just offer a bunch of features but to bring a fresh approach.
  • "One of the hardest things to do is approach something you are so used to with a newbie mind," said Fried (who has no relation to Login's author).
  • Fried said the response has been strong, with more than 100,000 people having signed up for an account.
  • The real question is how many of those pay up when their two-week trial ends.

Slack aims to replace email altogether.

  • Until recently, the capabilities of Slack's workplace chat application stopped at the edge of a company's own network.
  • The new Slack Connect helps businesses connect with the people they need to interact with, including customers, vendors, contractors and suppliers.
  • In an interview, Slack product chief Tamar Yehoshua noted that users have already found unexpected ways to use Slack Connect, including professors using the service to discuss remote learning and venture capitalists using it to communicate with portfolio companies. Slack itself used the service while it was raising money in a recent debt offering.

Yes, but: Email provision has become the space for giants like Microsoft and Google who own their own huge data center operations and can offer giant inboxes for free to consumers.

  • A small company like Hey's Basecamp faces hurdles including the costs of running its own servers and the challenge of persuading users (or companies) to move their operations to a new provider.
  • If Hey's features gain traction, the big players can copy them.

As for Slack, it offers some advantages over email, but its real-time nature can also increase the pressure on workers to feel like they have to be instantly available.

The bottom line: Email is a relic, one of the last enduring pieces of the pre-web internet. But the same qualities that have made it so universal also make it tough to change and improve.

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