Did Darwin Skip Over Email?

by Foundry

In a time when many folks view Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn as the new darlings of the Internet, we still believe that email has been and will long continue to be one of the Internet’s few enduring killer apps.

Several of us at Foundry Group have been deeply involved with the email industry as insiders and investors at a number of email-related companies, including early email service providers (Email Publishing and MessageMedia), email hosting companies (Critical Path), email security companies (Postini), and email delivery assurance companies (Return Path). Email has been a successful theme in our historical investments over the past dozen years, and we believe it has an equally bright future.

So, perhaps we’re biased. Nonetheless, not many people would dispute the critical role that email plays in our daily lives.

Nowhere is that truer than within the enterprise. Knowledge workers (the cornerstone of the U.S. economy’s future) live and breathe email. Our email is where we start our workday, and it’s usually the last thing we look at before we leave the office. In between, whether we’re sitting at our desks or out of the office but still glued to our cell phones and wireless email, much of our day revolves around our inbox.

And yet, for all our dependency on email, email tools have evolved little since the day they left the mainframe world. Remember the early networked email systems? Microsoft Outlook 2007—the de facto enterprise email client—certainly has more bells and whistles than the first email clients such as cc:Mail, but the interface and, more importantly, its substantive capabilities really haven’t changed:

   Send. Receive. Read. Store.

The first email clients did all that when they were first introduced, and all email clients/servers created since have faithfully replicated that paradigm with little variation. The biggest “advance” since the advent of client-side email has been the integration of contact management and calendaring with email.

Why haven’t enterprise email solutions evolved? Certainly, the pervasiveness and the role of email have changed dramatically since then. The sheer volume of email that the typical knowledge worker deals with is well beyond what we could have imagined in the early days of email. And more than simple communications, the email infrastructure is now being used for more than just email—it’s a collaboration tool, a document exchange mechanism, and even a de facto file storage system (to many this is a huge problem in itself). Email is the core, and without doubt knowledge workers need a new generation of tools to manage it effectively and get the most out of it.

However, we believe the next generation of email is about more than individual productivity. The amount of explicit and implicit data, knowledge, and relationship information stored in a typical corporate email store is staggering. Take, for example, just the enterprise social graph data in Exchange. With the right analysis, one can determine not only who knows whom (within or outside of the enterprise), but also the length, depth, frequency and velocity of that communication and relationship. Indirect connections between multiple individuals (akin to what LinkedIn does) can be discovered but without requiring any explicit user data entry or behavior modification. The ability to piece all of this together—across an entire organization—is a very powerful concept.

Beyond the enterprise social graph, think of the implications for knowledge management if the enterprise could effectively tap into the email store (using tools such as content analysis and unstructured data management) to discern and expose expertise across its workforce. Past knowledge management approaches have often suffered because they depended on individual users to explicitly enter data or take actions beyond their normal day-to-day routine, with little immediate benefit to them. What if knowledge management was instead seamlessly driven by our existing behavior?

Unfortunately, the lack of innovation in enterprise email has left us with inadequate tools to manage the massive amount of information that resides in and passes through our inboxes. And, more importantly, it has locked some of the enterprise’s richest data just beyond our reach.

In contrast to enterprise email, mainstream Web applications and platforms have experienced hyper-evolution. Indexed search has existed on the Web since [1993]. Outlook/Exchange users, however, had to wait until 2007 for that native capability. (Never mind that this newly-added capability is slower and less useful than Lookout Software’s Outlook plug-in for indexed search, which Microsoft acquired and shelved in July 2004.)

Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have garnered popularity in good part because they recognize that the social graph is what matters. Companies such as Salesforce.com have thrived because they view themselves not just as an application but as a platform to facilitate the gathering, organization and integration of data across disparate sources and applications and because they recognize that data are more useful and actionable when freed rather than trapped.

Fortunately for all of us knowledge workers, there’s hope. Xobni’s approach to exposing the meta-data in Outlook is a good leap forward (albeit, only part of what we think is the solution). Clear Context is promising tools to help email users manage their inboxes more effectively. And even Microsoft, with its announcement that it will be opening its entire set of APIs for Exchange and Outlook 2007, is showing a glimmer that maybe they now understand that Exchange wants to be a platform, not an application.

With folks like Om Malik and Microsoft insider Don Dodge and mainstream media like the New York Times shining a spotlight on the email inbox as the next beach head for social networking, it’s inevitable in the consumer space. Similarly, in enterprise we think that the next generation of email is going to make today’s technology look as antiquated as the GNU Emacs that many of us email old-timers used for our first email interface. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take too long.