People-first email from WeMail and IBM Verse

Apple didn’t invent the smart phone, they just took the idea of a smartphone and jumped ahead a quantum leap. It’s a bit too much to say they perfected it, but they laid down the basic parameters of what an early 21st century mobile computing device should have: touch screen, gestural interface, camera, wifi, app store, and so on.

The idea of people-first email is also not new. I have tried a number of email apps that are organized around the identities of the senders and recipients of email, instead of the default time-based queue of messages. For example, Hop, which is positioned as ’email at the speed of life’. But I am still waiting for someone to do it right.

Two new candidates have appeared in the people-first email race.

IBM revealed Verse yesterday, the email app formerly known as Mail Next (see IBM’s Mail Next looks like the first social email). The principal elements are those described in January of 2014, without much change.

Here you see a screenshot with avatars along the top, which are a combination of user  and algorithm selected. The red circles have numbers (hard to see) that indicate the number of outstanding messages. Note also the social network rendering in the lower right panel, indicating the social network of the people associated with the selected message. This is an example of a work graph: a social network and the work artifacts that they use to get their work done, which could include email, documents, tasks, events, and so forth.

ibm-verse-screen

Verse is quite broad in scope, with built-in calendars, as well as an email-centric task system, used to indicate that an email may come with the explicit requirement of accomplishing something — like turning around a request for information or completing some arbitrary task — and doing so in a specific time frame.

Verse seems like a contextual conversation tool, but one that stops short of providing the activity streams and message posting that we have come to expect from social collaboration or work chat tools. Jeff Schick, the IBM manager leading the project, stated during one demo that an email could be posted in a blog shared among members of a department or project team. It was unclear to me whether that blog capability was built into Verse or whether it is an adjunct tool, like IBM Connections.

Verse is in a limited beta at present, and will be generally available in 2015.

In a sense, Verse seems like an alternative — or even a competitor — to IBM Connections, which is the fastest growing software product IBM has had. Perhaps building on email instead of trying to supplant it defines a larger marketplace. Lord knows, it seems like email isn’t going away, and if someone can come up with the right formula, maybe it doesn’t have to.

The lasting benefit of email is that those sending and receiving it don’t have to be sharing the same platform for the basic communication to work. While a tool like Connections or Slack require participants to have a shared account for any communication to take place. The reality is that we live in an asymmetric world, where we communicate with many people that we don’t know well and with whom we don’t share common tools. Until someone creates a convention and communication protocols that is as broadly accepted as email, email it is.

A second announcement yesterday about people-first email: Philip and Gerald Yuen are leading an effort called WeMail, which has raised $1 million in funding from the Y combinator mafia. WeMail is positioned as ’email that puts people first’. Basically, the mobile WeMail client flattens email threads and makes them look like chat. They’ve built their own messaging system, so if users on both sides are using WeMail the messages are sent immediately, like instant messages. The ‘inbox’ is replaced with people’s identities, and contextually organized. The pitch is much like that of Hop, and I will have to experience it before seeing if it will displace Gmail on my iPhone. Currently available on Android only.