Finding the path to post-desktop email that works

Mobile email is taking over. Of emails that are opened, 51 percent are opened on mobile devices, observes Litmus. This is an all-time high. At the same time, webmail opens have dropped by more than a third in the last year, to just 18 percent of opens. Customers want to interact with email at their convenience … wherever they happen to be.

A second change is also at play. While consumers are communicating via text, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more to accomplish tasks once reserved for email – driving the overall consumer email sent down 4 percent — current predictions have business-oriented emails growing more than 13 percent in the coming years.

Why the discontinuity? Those who predict a wholesale shift away from email to some form of instant messaging miss that these technologies are not the same – especially for the business user. Both are valuable, indispensable technologies for people’s communication needs. The difference is the social contract implied. The email social contract dictates people respond within a reasonable time frame but with deeper thought and informative responses. In other words, the response comes at the recipient’s time frame – likely when they have access to all of their information.

This is where you handle complex email.

This is where you handle complex email.

So what’s happening with desktop email? Not surprisingly, it’s also trending downward, but not as much as you’d think. A year ago, 33 percent of email was opened on desktop clients such as Microsoft Outlook. Today, it’s down to 29 percent. There is more than one way to interpret that data. You could say that desktop email is gradually falling off as mobile grows. The best read on the trend, however, is probably that knowledge workers are naturally more mobile – more out and about – than before, but they are still being forced back to their desktop to complete key tasks. Mobile email has a way to go before it satisfies the needs of knowledge workers.

When we talk about email, we really mean our written communication and scheduling center. It’s where we plan our days and manage our tasks. It’s where we discover related information and synthesize it into informed opinions. Email is implicitly a task reminder system. It’s where we look at threads and CCs to determine who’s saying what to whom. It’s so much more than just a simple back-and-forth texting tool. With that kind of work landscape, it’s no wonder that many people still prefer to handle email at their desk.

But, as we all know, the days of sitting in your office with a PC are long gone as the sole way to work. A number of improvements to mobile mail are on the horizon aimed squarely at making the mandatory out-of-office email experience more effective:

  • New user interface designs will save from toggling around between apps to retrieve documents relevant to a specific meeting. Instead our applications will readily deliver all of the relevant content and social media activity directly in your calendar or email application. The desktop metaphor of information spread across multiple concurrent applications simply doesn’t scale on our mobile devices.
  • The moment for “contextual content/contextual search” is imminent. Data, contacts, messages, and meetings do not exist free of context. Of course, the only context that matters is yours. For instance, if you are heading to a meeting with a client, your mobile inbox with contextual search will automatically find recent Tweets and news about that client to show you before you go to the meeting.
  • People awareness will bring contacts to life, augmenting email and meeting views with social data from LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. The next generation of contact-aware applications will also include “interactions” with these people. When is the last time we met? What was the topic of our last email exchange? What does my company know about this person or their company? By indexing contacts, calendar, extended social graph and unstructured data (e.g. files), we’ll get a much-needed at-a-glance view of what is important, relevant, and related to work – while still smartly separating personal from company-owned information.
  • Cloud service integration connects cloud-based file repositories with email, which has typically been excluded from these services. When mobile email and cloud services are brought together, the net impact on productivity is greater than the sum of its parts. Not only will we be able to share emails with cloud services; but apps will also discover interesting stored information about the current email or upcoming meeting. Cloud service integration will become “table stakes” for any serious mobile productivity app. That said, security and corporate control over data will be essential as well.
  • Tagging, Filtering, Task assignment will become even more critical in these applications. It’s not enough to simply delay action on an email. Basic triage of email is insufficient to getting real work done. Our email systems will continue to help us filter and tag interesting emails to allow productive work in the short snippets of time we have throughout the day.

In recent weeks we heard many predictions about technology for the near future, and while I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow, I feel it is inevitable that the 29 percent desktop open rate on corporate email is going to drop even more in the coming year. It has to. There are too many factors driving us to work smarter and be productive when we’re not sitting still. The current mode of mobile work email cannot hold. 2014 looks to be a year of mobile email app breakthroughs that will deliver much-needed context and greater usability to the mobile email experience.

Gordon Mangione is CEO of Tipbit.