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Online Entrepreneur: Investment in Email Spells Big Inbox Advances

By Matt Blumberg

Every year since about 2001, people have been claiming email is dead.  Yet for all the hue and cry about everything that’s going to kill email (RSS, social, mobile, you name it), email is bigger and better than ever.  More people using it.  More emails sent.  More commerce and debate sparked via the humble SMTP protocol.

Not only do I not think this is going to change anytime soon, I think that email is going to become more ingrained and more popular with both consumers and businesspeople.

This is because the inbox is getting more interesting.  As proof I’d point to a recent tremendous amount of startup activity and investment in the front end of email.

Leading the way are major ISPs and mailbox operators who are experimenting with more interesting applications in their inboxes.  As the postmaster of one of the major ISPs said recently, “we’ve spent years stripping functionality out of email in the name of security – now that we have security more under control, we would like to start adding functionality back in.”  Google’s announcement earlier this year about allowing third-party developers to access your email with your permission is one example, as is their well-documented experiment with NetFlix’s branded favicon showing up in the inbox a few months back.  And Hotmail’s most recent release, which has been well covered online (including this article which George Bilbrey wrote in MediaPost) also includes trials of Web-like functionality in the inbox, as well as other ways for users to experience their inboxes other than the age-old “last-message-on-top” method.  Yahoo has done a couple things along these lines and one can assume they have other things in the works, as well.

Along a similar vein, there are probably a dozen startups working on richer inboxes as well, either through plug-ins or what I’d call a “Web email client overlay” – you can still use your Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail, or other address (your own domain, or a POP or IMAP account), but read the mail through one of these new clients.  Regardless of the technology, these companies are all trying to make the inbox experience more interesting, relevant, productive, and in many cases, tied into your social graph—relationships with others online—and/or third-party web content.

The two big ones in terms of active user base are Xobni, an Outlook plugin that matches social graph to inbox and produces interesting stats for its users; and Xoopit, which got acquired by Yahoo earlier this year and wraps content indexing and discovery into its mail client.

Of course one of email’s big problems is how overwhelming it can be, which has led to new productivity tools.  I would count both Xobni and Xoopit, but there are a variety of other companies trying to play in that broadly defined space, some aimed at consumers and others aimed at power/business users.  Zenbe, Kwaga, Xiant, Orla, SimplyFile, Clear Context, MessageMind, DokDok, CloudMagic, Cruxley, Taskforce, and GTriage all have messaging that sounds alike and offer  some form of “solve inbox overload problem” and “better searching and management of data in your inbox.”  Of course, large ISPs aren’t ceding this ground entirely.  Gmail has gotten into the act with their Priority Inbox, and Yahoo and Hotmail both have similar programs either launched or in the works.  Gist and Rapportive match social-graph data and third-party content like feeds and blogs into something that’s a hybrid of plugin and stand-alone web application.  Threadsy is integrating social accounts with the inbox.

Furthermore, services like OtherInbox and Boxbe aim to help users cut through the clutter of their inboxes and simultaneously create a more effective means for marketers to reach customers (say what you will about that concept, but at least it has a clear revenue model, which some of the other services listed above don’t have).

What’s interesting to watch now is how the entire inbox experience could change over the next few years.  And I do mean years – our habits are deeply ingrained. But I also think current developments in email could lead to different experiences based on use or context.  Think about it.  Right now your grandmother and your boss both use email in more or less the same way.  That may not be true in the future as some of these innovations take hold.  I also think it remains to be seen whether all messaging will converge into one space or whether we will continue to consume messages in separate spaces (inbox, Twitter feed, Facebook feed, Tumblr dash, and so on). Or some combination of all of the above.

Marketers should start planning for a world where the experience of their customers is specific to their mailbox provider and the tools they use to manage their messages.  This is going to require much more sophisticated tools and technologies on the marketing side. 

So here’s my advice: say three cheers for innovation in the email space.  Then, get to work!

About the Author: Matt Blumberg is the CEO of email-deliverability-and-security-services concern Return Path. He writes the Online Entrepreneur with his colleagues George Bilbrey and Jack Sinclair.  Together they will cover how to approach the business of email marketing, thoughts on the future of email and other digital technologies, and more general articles on company-building in the online industry – all from the perspective of an entrepreneur. 

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