Email has taken over our lives, and most of us hate it. But a new generation of email apps are changing how we interact with the inbox, and on Monday Facebook might even join the party. The inbox of the future is going to look a lot more like Facebook than the one you’re using today—but it’s also going to do a lot more. Thanks to these apps, you’ll learn to love your email again.
Here are four ways your inbox is changing, with some of the services that are making it better:
1. Rich Desktop of Apps
New APIs are making it easier for companies to transform your inbox from an ordinary list of messages to a rich desktop of apps that act on the fertile information in your email. These apps make your life easier by letting your inbox do more. For the most part, these apps take advantage of the biggest trend in email innovation today: Gmail. Gmail is already eating into Outlook’s dominance as the number one mail client in the world. But Facebook might also join the fray, and we all know they can develop an app ecosystem. Either way, app developers win, and you win.
Take a look at some of today’s email apps to see what the next generation inbox looks like:
- Boomerang: Lets you control when you send and receive emails via a button it installs in Gmail.
- Sanebox: Automatically filters and labels your important and unimportant mail in Gmail.
- Rapportive: Displays social data for your contacts in the Gmail sidebar.
- Priority Inbox in Gmail: Automatically identifies and separates your important email from the rest. (Email innovation isn’t just for startups.)
- Google Voice via Google Talk: Allows you to make phone calls from Gmail.
2. Better Notifications Display
One of the worst pollutants of your inbox is Bacn: the email notifications from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other services. But the problem with these messages isn’t the content—if it were, you would turn all notifications off (and some people do). The problem is that some of these are helpful (e.g., a Google Calendar reminder), but they overshadow emails from actual human beings you need to respond to.
Here’s where your inbox can learn from Facebook. One solution: a mail client that handles these transactional emails better. Don’t put them in my inbox, but instead throw them in a sidebar with an icon and display the number of new notifications. I couldn’t find any apps solving this problem today, but I’m sure they are around the corner.
3. A UNIX-like Shell
Thanks to one group of apps, your email is becoming a UNIX-like shell to run commands and interact with services via the compose window. You don’t have to visit the apps’ websites to use their services. You can now get things automatically done just by sending an email. Will Facebook let us do this? Let’s wait and see.
These startups are riding two major trends. First, thanks to email delivery services like SendGrid, these companies don’t have to manage their own mail servers to receive incoming commands. Also, the increasing proliferation of smartphones today gives us email wherever we go. Once a company launches an email-as-an-interface service, voilà! They already have a mobile app.
A few apps to keep your eye on:
- FollowUp.cc: Attach a reminder to an email by putting FollowUp.cc in the Cc or Bcc field. The service will ping you via email when your reminder is due and give you the chance to one-click Snooze the email.
- Hashable: Post meaningful connections to Twitter, make introductions, and track your social capital by Cc’ing or Bcc’ing their service.
- TripIt: Just forward your flight confirmation emails to TripIt, and TripIt will build your itinerary and manage your travel plans.
4. Convenient Publishing and Editing
Your inbox is the world’s most underrated text editor. Format text, add colors, change fonts, attach photos and videos in your compose window. Thanks to smartphones, email is the text editor that’s always with you. (This article you’re reading was composed and formatted in Gmail.)
Posterous, which makes blogging easier by letting you post from your inbox, was one of the first apps to recognize the power of email as a text editor.
This is where your inbox will surpass Facebook for your professional life. Soon you’ll be able to edit spreadsheets, make presentations and access your other work documents from your inbox. In other words, you’ll get more things done with the interface you already use all day and are familiar with.
Loving your Inbox Again
Our inbox is over-worked and under-appreciated. It’s central to most of our communication with the world and where we keep track of contacts and tasks. Smartphones lessen our separation anxiety with our inbox, letting us take our email wherever we go (even when you gotta go to the bathroom). CEOs and grandmothers worldwide send emails. It’s about time we stopped fighting it and learned to love it.
With email apps like these, our inbox is becoming our hub of personal productivity, much like Facebook is already the platform for social interaction. Whether or not Facebook can impress enough to replace your current mail client is the zillion-dollar question. Either way, our inbox is coming back and apps that help us filter and manage all the incoming messages are the only thing that will keep us sane.
Editor’s note: Ajay Kulkarni (@acoustik) is the CEO and Co-Founder of Sensobi, a service that lets you manage your personal relationships from your inbox and smartphone (currently in private beta). Sign up for their beta invite waiting list at http://www.sensobi.com/.