Is Email The Ultimate Social Environment?

A $350 million buyout of Zimbra by Yahoo (YHOO), Thunderbird being spun out as an independent entity by Mozilla, and the impressive launch of San Francisco-based Xobni: Email, the most socialist of all web apps, is back on the front burner. As old as the contemporary Internet itself, it remains a constant source of pain and pleasure for all of us.
Every morning starts with a groan at the sight of dozens of unanswered emails. And yet somewhere in there is a note from mom, sister or another loved one that brings a smile to our faces. There is no denying the fact that as an application it has most, if not all, of our attention. [digg=]
Given its critical role in our digital lives, I wonder if email could be the underpinning of a social environment — much less a social network and more a “relationship and interaction manager that aggregates various social web services” — that doesn’t require rewiring our brains and changing our behavior.
The new generation of Internet users tends to rely more on social networks for communication, but for the rest of us, email is still the hub of our daily lives. (According to one study, there are about 1.2 billion email users and 1.8 billion active email accounts worldwide.)
The demographic dissonance aside, email for a substantial portion of the population can be a good starting point for a networked experience. It has all the elements needed for a social ecosystem, namely the address book. And if you’re like most people, your address book is organized by friends, family, work, and acquaintances.
In other words, the relationship buckets (and the level of intimacy) are already predefined and have relevance. From there, all communication-related information — mobile numbers, geo-location data, instant messaging identities and of course, email addresses — are just a click away. So what’s missing? Discovery and presence, and synchronicity. The good news is that a lot of these issues are being worked on by two San Francisco-based startups, Xoopit and Xobni, the latter having just launched.
First lets look at Xobni (which would have been my pick for the coolest company at TechCrunch 40) and what they have built. They have an adjunct application for Microsoft Outlook, which scans through the entire email database and quickly establishes relationships among the people you email, and ranks them according to frequencies and relevance.
The best feature of this application is that it can tell you when a specific person is most likely to reply to you and how quickly. It is not discovery and presence in the purist sense, but it’s close enough. Future versions of Xobni’s software will bring together various web services — everything from Flickr photos to Twitter. I like the idea of a quick query that matches a name with a photo from Flickr or Photobucket. Similarly, it would be great to find a way to integrate Twitter messages into the same client and not deal with a separate application. (I wrote about this Universal Communication Client for Business 2.0 back in July.) (If you want to try Xobni, use invite code GigaOM — only the first 100 people are going to get the beta downloads.)
While Xobni is focusing on Microsoft Outlook, startup Xoopit is focusing on the web mail universe. By combining some of its own proprietary technologies, among them a unique file system and search and messaging protocols including RSS, Xoopit has come up with such a unique user experience that it made me think: This is what Gmail should have been.
The company is co-founded by Bijan Marashi and Jonathan Katzman, formerly of Inktomi and TellMe Networks, respectively. Xoopit is very early in its development cycle but is still very impressive. (You can sign up for their beta here.)
The entire system is built to bring all types of web services right into the inbox. You go to the Xoopit web site, sign up, and input either your POP3 or IMAP mail server information. The messages immediately start getting pulled into your Xoopit account. If you have an IMAP server, then the messages reconcile with your original inbox. From here on Xoopit lets you view your inbox (and your attachments) in many different ways.
Take photos, for example. Most of us end up emailing photos (or links to photos) to each other. Links of photos are used to access them, while attachments are used to get a “preview.” The Xoopit GUI makes it easy to see photos on a grid, much like you would on, say, an iPhoto. On social networks photos are shared via some sort of a photo (or slideshow) widget. In this case, the email environment becomes the place where you can experience photos and videos. The next obvious step for Xoopit is to bring in Twitter and other such services into their playground.
In many ways, Yahoo might have taken the wrong approach to its new social networking experiment, Mash. Instead of starting as a network, it should have started from within Yahoo’s email service, which has some 250 million subscribers. Regardless of what Yahoo does, the fact of the matter is that “email” is finally getting some sorely needed attention, and let’s just hope it leads to something better, something that doesn’t make us all groan every time we open our inbox.