Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Friday, June 24, 2005

A new approach to mobile email?

Beware RIM! Despite being king of the mobile email world with Blackberry, your mobile email solution is going to be toppled soon unless you improve it.

Why?

Someone who understands email is going to come up with a better solution. RIM doesn't understand email in the "information organisation" sense. They understand email in the transport sense, i.e. mechanisms that makes sure things are secure and makes sure things get delivered on the move. They also understand sychronisation, especially with all those "dirty" low-level Exchange protocols. Granted, they also understand device design.

But why do I think that this apparently elegant mobile email solution, well liked by a few million, is in danger of becoming out-moded?

In case you haven't noticed, folders are out, searching is in. With the ability to search and retrieve information with powerful searching engines, the need to sort data into hierarchical folders is apparently in decline. This trend is well described by Jon Hiller.

Google are the exemplars of the search ethos and they have taken this a step further with Gmail, an online email service that does away with folders to organise email and uses labels ("tags", "keywords") instead.

Tagging is an important concept because it still allows user-intervention in information organisation processes, but doesn't impose a structure. For example, I can tag an email from a client with the tag "client", which means that it is now retrievable as a message from a "client" without the need to stuff it into a folder called "client". If I have a powerful search engine that can quickly retrieve messages tagged with "client", then this does away with the need for a folder called "client". Moreover, I can tag "client" messages with other tags, like "vip", or "chicago", or "nanotechnology", to indicate status, location and business activity respectively, and then search on these tags. I can use any tag I like and I don't have to worry about having sub-folders called "Chicago" etc.

However, I can also use rules to create tags. Just as we can use the Rules Wizard in Outlook to manipulate folder storage (i.e. routing to folders), there's no reason why we can't use the wizard to add tags. For example, I could create a rule that for all messages from "cool_client@cool..." add the tag "cool" and "client".

Also, we can use heuristics to generate tags automatically. For example, by looking at the percentage of emails I open from a sender and weighting this with the time interval between received (or accessed) and opened, I can automatically add tags like "vip" to the types of messages I open often and quickly, no matter the sender or the content.

Currently with my Blackberry, ALL of my email flows via the device. It is the single-user "Internet Edition", aimed at consumers (or prosumers). If ever there was a need to deviate from the standard "inbox" metaphor used by email for donkey's years (i.e. since the 70's), then it's mobile access. Innovation is required.

With tags, I could do things like open a current view on messages that are "vip", "cool", "project X" and "family". Only messages with these tags would be visible and cause an alert. However, with powerful search and fast wireless connections, all my other emails are only a click away! And, with better client implementation techniques, AJAX-like and with merged Web/local-data search, email providers will be able to offer slick, fast and usable interfaces. Also at our disposal will be generic push capabilities (unlike the Blackberry proprietary solution) that can also be used with thin-client implementations.

My instincts are that the emerging trend towards tagging and search-based approaches to email will enable a new approach to mobile email. Those that understand these trends, or drive them - like Google - will be well placed to deliver us highly usable mobile email solutions, well integrated with our Web-based email services, like Gmail or Oddpost.

I haven't gone into any implementation details, as I realised half-way through this posting that I would need a much lengthier article than my usual blog postings. Therefore, I might document these possibilities in more detail elsewhere.

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