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I e-mail, therefore I am…

When will e-mail programs catch up with the way we actually use them? 4/17/01 Enterprise Pursuits hed: I e-mail, therefore I am… dek: When will e-mail programs catch up with the way we actually use them? Nelson King

This is a plea to all you bright guys and gals out there thinking of software to write for busy office workers and enterprise-type folks. As I sat for the third hour today grinding my way through responding to 22 legitimate e-mails, it occurred to me: I live in my e-mail program! My life doesn’t revolve around the word processor any more, or the spreadsheet, but that ugly, mind-numbing, user hostile environment of the e-mail program.

I don’t know about your forms of mental calculus, but one of my most common rules of thumb is if I’m spending a lot of time on something, it’s worth thinking about why I’m spending so much time on it. E-mail definitely falls into that calculus.

I know why I’m doing e-mail. It works. I can deal with messages when I get to them, not when the phone flies off the hook. I can get my own messages, points, and even subtleties across to people I have no prayer of catching in person or possibly even by phone. It provides me a record of all the dumb things I’ve written (or had written to me) that I can even search. Over the past couple of years, it’s also the location where a lot of the news that I need is received in the form of push messages from a number of magazines and news services. It’s also the hub from which, more often than any other place, I branch out to the Internet, and to which I return from browsing or searching.

What I find is that I’m not just working with a lot of email, but that the e-mail program is the place where I do a lot of thinking–possibly even creative thinking. And folks, let me tell you, I need help! Lots of help. Help with writing, help with organizing, help with storing information I want to retrieve, and help with the nitty-gritty of e-mail (like a single address book that’s actually easy to maintain). I’d dearly love it if those rich sources of information I tap out on the Internet somehow could be more easily used within the e-mail environment.

Of course there are also the banes and distractions of e-mail, such as the never-ending stream of moronic get-rich-quick spam, mindless porn come-ons, and well-intentioned forwards from friends and colleagues (on their road to hell). I need help to get rid of all that, or at least make dealing with it efficient.

What we’ve got now: Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, and Netscape Communicator, et al., were built around the notion that e-mail is e-mail. When you’re doing e-mail, that’s what you’re doing. It’s a messaging system with some peripheral information (maybe) for calendars and contacts. It’s cut down a relatively unhelpful writing environment, even though I’ll bet most of us now write beaucoup more words in e-mail than anywhere else. The address and contact information management generally is…tedious. Microsoft’s mysterious multiple address and contact databases are a never-ending source of consternation. Not to mention that trying to maintain them is unbearably slow and complicated. As for dealing with extraneous thoughts, random message data, Internet text and all the other flotsam and jetsam that are needed to really incorporate information into your e-mail–forget it. The few links and hooks are there mostly because you insist on learning how to do it, not because they are integrated into the program, or that the software even suggests how to do such things as copy text from a Web page into an e-mail.

Come on, people, software developers aren’t supposed to be stuck in the ruts of history (such as we have it). You’ve got CEOs out there who are dyin’ because they can’t make their e-mail work for them. You’ve got armies of office schlubs who would like to use their e-mail for something other than aggravation. You’ve got jillions of people who have come to spend much of their day in the e-mail program and would like it to do more than just e-mail. I’m talkin’ market! (All you have to do is beat out Microsoft or Netscape.)

So let’s hear it for innovation! (Please hurry, I may have only 20 or 30 more years to live.)

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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