Why Email Clients Need to Change

My inbox is broken.

Not in an I-can’t-check-my-messages kind of way, but in a fundamental, inboxes-will-never-be-the-same-again kind of way.

Analysis of inbox traffic for 30 daysWith every birthday reminder, bill confirmation, new friend, direct message, password recovery, and mailing list, the content of our inboxes becomes less and less a means of communication and more and more a record of all we do online. Email is the lowest common denominator of digital identity. It’s our web keychain. It’s the catch-all of our online lives.

But if inboxes don’t fundamentally change in order to adapt to their new role as the keeper of myriad transactions across the entire web, they’ll be obsolete.

Have a look at your inbox. Chances are much of what’s in there isn’t just traditional email conversations between you and someone else. A few hours of unscientific inbox querying and a quick analysis with Mail Trends showed that less than half of my messages in the last month consisted of such simple correspondence. The other half were records of things I’d done, people who’d followed me on social networks, bookings I’d made, confirmations of sites I’d signed up for, and so on.

Companies like Xobni and Xoopit offer email analytics, as do some Firefox plug-ins, but everyone still assumes that what’s in an inbox is predominantly conversations with people. It’s not.

Inboxes need to get smarter. My perfect email client would:

  • Scan incoming messages and build a list of all the companies I’ve paid, and those with whom I have recurring payments, showing spending history.
  • Keep all my logins and password recoveries for online accounts in one place, safely encrypted.
  • Group and track mailing list digests, and give me controls to unsubscribe from them.
  • Show me all interactions with each of my friends in one place, regardless of whether they happened on email, Facebook, Friendfeed, or Twitter. OpenID holds promise here, but has yet to be properly integrated into inboxes.
  • Track and analyze transactions semantically, from upcoming travel to events I’m attending.

Today, I have to visit dozens of other sites and services to make sense of my online life. This is a waste: I already have a record of all these transactions in my inbox. I just need a better way to look at them.

Gmail offered a tantalizing glimpse of what inboxes could be, but stopped short of recognizing this shift from conversations to a digital record of our online lives. The inbox of the future looks more like logfile analysis and aggregation and less like an email platform. Today, you can hack some of this together with Greasemonkey scripts, clever Gmail filters, or add-ins from Gmail labs. But it’s not enough: We need an inbox that embraces its new role as the universal record of our online lives.