Squadmail wants to make email more collaborative. I think.

Squadmail is a new take on making your email inbox a collaborative space: another try at social email. The idea makes sense:

  1. Create folders (or labels in Gmail) in all of the email accounts of a team working together on a project, for example ‘Our Glorious Project’.
  2. Synchronize the contexts of those folders across the project team, so that if I label an email ‘Our Glorious Project’ then all the team members would get a copy placed in their folders. This synchronization works across different email services, like Gmail, Outlook, and so on. Note that this avoids having to forward the emails, or remembering to CC everyone.
  3. As an added bonus, assign an email address to each folder, so that email can be directed to the folder directly, and then everyone gets a copy.

Sounds good in theory, but when I signed up and started to fool with Squadmail I was always confused. Perhaps that’s because it was a brandy-new experience for me, and I never got over the learning hump. But I think the problem is more basic.
First of all, aside from the fact that the folders are created as subfolders of Squadmail, they look just like other folders. And secondly, emails can find their way into the folders by various means, but the specific way they got there is not immediately obvious. You might say, who cares? But I found it odd to have emails appearing in my email client silently, even though I use filters to redirect a great deal of bulkish emails.
Here’s some examples:

Squadmail – Project-oriented emails without forwarding or CC’s

The folder above is intended to match the use case of ‘Our Glorious Project’ — a team sharing a bunch of emails related to a project. Because their is no metadata, though’ I don’t know what to do. There are six emails with the unenlightening ‘Re: Project Details – Confirmation Needed’ header. I look at this and don’t know anything, unless I open the mails and read them all.
So, I started to feel like Squadmail simply fails the Abstraction Test: if you have to know everything before you can do anything = fail.

Squadmail – Email sent directly to the folder email address

The second use case however might be really beneficial in a lot of settings. Here you see that notifications or messages coming in from an outside service — in this case, Twitter — are directed to the email address associated with the Squadmail folder (like ‘[email protected]’) instead of an individual’s personal email. Then the emails are accessible to everyone without forwarding, and without having to change the email if Jane leaves the company.
The Bottom Line
Maybe it’s just me, but I find the first use case for Squadmail kind of confusing. If I am actually sharing these emails as an adjunct to project work, I really want to have more coordinative oomph. I need tasks, or comment threads, or someway to indicate status, like which emails I have to do something with. I pointed out the Squadmail team that perhaps with a little more development effort they could build browser plugins for Gmail to add some of that functionality. But the Squadmail folks are committed to a cross-email platform strategy, and so they couldn’t easily do that for Outlook and other email clients supporting IMAP. Personally, I am a believer in tight and deep — like making this really work for Gmail users. But it’s their barbecue  not mine.
In the second use case, I can see the utility of the tool. However, aside from relatively small teams, someone using an external service for customer support or sales would likely connect an email stream of notifications with an application customized for that purpose, like Zendesk or Conversocial.
My bet is that Squadmail is going to have to pivot into a more tightly defined use case — for example, doing a really deep and tight implementation of shared folders for Gmail — rather than remain broad and loose.
It occurs to me, now, that the shared folder model means that this would be a natural area of expansion for  Dropbox, too. A folder is a folder, after all.